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Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Metafiction and Flamboyance in Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals (2016) opens with a sequence that has been attacked for being disgusting, demeaning, misogynist and irrelevant. The sequence features a number of obese women provocatively dancing nude, which turns out to be part of an exhibition put on in an art gallery owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). I just can't help but wonder whether viewers would have had the same reaction if the dancing models were slim SuperBarbies or six-packed young men. Just wondering.
The sequence is shocking, and it sets the entire tone of the film because it unveils the stark discrepancy between reality and our individual perception of what reality is – a kernel component of the story.
We then follow the extremely classy Susan to the coldness of her prodigal house and get to know her dashingly handsome, and equally distant, husband Hutton (conveniently played by Armie Hammer). Susan receives the manuscript of a new novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she hasn't seen in years. She decides to occupy her sleepless nights reading the book which, according to Edward's note, is inspired by and dedicated to her. Here, the diegetic narrative unfolds into other two story lines treading two different paths: fictional and chronological. As Susan reads the emotionally devastating story about Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) who takes his family on a trip that ends tragically with the rape and murder of his wife and daughter, she helplessly reminisces about her self-sabotaged relationship with Edward.
It's a no-brainer figuring out that Edward's novel is an allegory of the emotional turmoil caused by Susan who had aborted his child and run off with a wealthier and worldlier man. In the end, Tony takes revenge on the men who killed his family, and Edward well, he doesn't exactly kill Susan, but he does something similar: He stands her up at a restaurant. Yes. That's it. I know how absurd the comparison may sound but please bear with me.
Edward is a writer. He is wired to creatively put himself and his emotions on the line and transform his reality into art. Susan, on the other hand, who married Edward solely to rebel against her parents' selective lifestyle, willingly traps herself and limits her emotions to the reality of a rigid, materialistic world. It is hard to miss how the blue and white colors dominate the scenes in which Susan is on screen, whereas red and green are the main colors in Edward's story. They both stand in contrast to each other, yet visually negotiate the relation between reality and fiction.. what it is and what it feels like.
Edward's payback is epic by all means; just as Susan had pumped reality into his art by providing him with the painful experience and memories, he has contaminated her fragile, dry reality with his emotionally powerful art. By making Susan read his novel, allowing her the pleasure to suffer and catharize her sense of guilt, offering her a glimpse of sentimental freedom, and getting her hopes up about loving and being loved only to crush them down is just as harsh as a bullet to the brain.
Tony had a gun. Edward had a story.
Tony, Edward's metafictional persona, is blinded after shooting the deranged murderer Ray (a wickedly excellent performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and accidentally – or not! – kills himself. The scene is ostentatiously grotesque if we think about it in realistic/Susan's terms. However, it perfectly resonates with Edward's pain and his creative attempts to emotionally strip in front of everyone – an act virtually similar to suicide.
And if you think that the novel is an exaggerated expression of a relatively less painful hardship, add the film itself as another non-diegetic layer of artistic exaggeration of a seemingly humdrum experience. Ford brilliantly embraces and manifests art as a lavish exaggeration of the mundane; this is not only evident in the story but in his picturesque style and rakish colors and frames as well. Nocturnal Animals is a Charlie Kaufman-esque film with the flamboyant sensitivity of Tom Ford.
The film features an outstanding cast who don't shy away from flaunting their admirable talents around. And still, the effortless greatness of Michael Shannon who plays Bobby Andes, the hard-boiled detective who helps Tony find the murderers, has left me in awe.
Here comes another film from screenwriter and director Tom Ford, and along comes another sea-parting controversy over his competence as a filmmaker. À la the hassle that followed A Single Man (2009), critics and viewers alike are quite unsure what to make of Mr. Ford's work: Should he be banished back to the flamboyant world of fashion design? Should he be hailed as a stylishly exuberant auteur? Whichever stance people take, the only thing that annoys me is the insistence on using Ford's renowned career in fashion against him. The sensibilities employed to create fashion and visual art in general are extravagant, but isn't cinema all about the extravagant symbolism of the image?
Perfect for Mindless Fun...
I enjoy Guy Ritchie's films the same way I enjoy roller coaster rides at the local theme park. Both are extremely fun, momentarily euphoric but easily forgettable.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is no different, and probably that is why I do not want to join the disappointed angry flocks of critics in bashing the adventure-action drama about a celebrated Medieval folktale. The only reason why King Arthur should be attacked is because it is a typical Ritchie film. Maybe repetitive? Let us not forget that Ritchie has built up his reputation as a divergent director with fast-paced action pieces that offer us a fresh, witty look at low-lives, thugs, and gangsters versus impotent authority. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), and RocknRolla (2008) are all great films but they won't go down the history of cinema as aesthetically phenomenal. They have started a trend they are fun to watch – and I highly appreciate them for that – but they would never cross the boundaries of entertainment.
I really do not understand where the frustration is coming from; Ritchie has probably strayed a bit away from his comfort zone (but hasn't he done that already with Sherlock Holmes?). His style remains the same.
King Arthur is another Ritchie-stamped, action-packed drama about low-lives versus authority, only with a mythical twist. The fantasy element may have gone a little off board considering its predecessors but the nonsensical exaggeration is eclipsed by the lavishly piquant editing – a tremendous source of humor in the film.
The script seems too cheeky and modern for the time period of the events, but I thought it was refreshingly funny in an unconventional way.
Great visuals. Eye-candy cast. Lively humor. What else to look for if you are after a mindless fun movie?
P.S. What the hell was David Beckham doing there?
Cashback (2006): Art and Narcissism
In his semi-autobiopic debut feature film Cashback (2006), writer and director Sean Ellis offers us an exclusive look inside a young artist's mind – his mind. His protagonist, Ben Willis (nicely played by Sean Biggerstaff), is an art student who decides to work the night shift at a local supermarket to overcome a recent breakup and an ensuing incurable insomnia. His lack of sleep develops an artistic habit of freezing time and seeing into the beauty of mundane surroundings that usually go unnoticed.
A very promising premise that loses its rigor to narcissistic self- immersion.
It is true that art is inherently narcissistic; it is all about the artist's vision of the world. The artist allows us to see things differently by shunning the familiar and comfortable collective outlook and assuming an individual perspective. Nevertheless, as the saying goes, it is takes two to tango, and the artistic process, even though innately egoistic, is not self-reflective. The audience is always an integral part.
Much of the film's freshness and originality have been obscured by Ellis's aimless meandering through his vision as an artist. It is definitely wonderful that he shares his exceptional vision with us, but he ignores the refinement necessary for viewers' reception. The end result is a picture that lacks focus and purpose, and borders on infantile disarray. Although it clearly sets itself within the boundaries of metafiction, the tone comes off as distant and lofty (pretty much like Biggerstaff's face throughout the movie) that the comic and amorous elements have become irrevocably dissonant.
I love films that leave me with mixed feelings. However, Cashback has left me with mixed feelings I cannot relate to or even attempt to understand. I do not think of myself as an artist but I cherish imagination more than words can say, and I know that confusion (the state of being confused and confusing) is one price to pay for this wonderful gift. It is the artist's choice though to either reach out or further distance him/herself. I mentioned earlier that the film is metafictional in the sense that Ellis's artistic choices in delivering the film to us is echoed by Willis's choices in trying to impart his art on the world around him. Both handle the outside world and its inhabitants as inferior subjects detached from the self to the extent that the humanity of the connection is reduced to a microscopic size; the human element in Ellis's picture is basically as emotionally aloof as the love relationship between Ben and Sharon.
The artist's eyes notice things that we cannot see, and attract our attention to them. Ellis and Willis have got only half of their job done.
The Young Pope (2016)
Sorrentino's The Young Pope is not the papal House of Cards
I was among many others who rushed to compare Paolo Sorrentino's Vatican drama The Young Pope to Beau Willimon's political masterpiece House of Cards after watching the first couple of episodes of the former. Obviously, I was wrong. Despite the unmistakable similarities between the enigmatic newly-elected young American pope Lenny Belardo, a.k.a. Pius XIII, and the evil mastermind statesman Frank Underwood, both shows aim at two completely distinctive targets, and although it is true that institutional religion and politics share so much in common in terms of manipulation and intrigue, Willimon and Belardo evidently play different tunes to approach such thorny issues.
Once you get past the third episode, you will realize that Belardo is nothing like Underwood. He might be the most diabolical pope you would see on screen but his vulnerability brings the human back into his character and makes it contradictory, yet more believable. A mixture of kindness and cruelty, faith and doubt, innocent childhood and bitter adulthood, finely portrayed by Jude Law in a role that will later be marked in his career as the departure from Hollywood's 'pretty boy' branding and an ensuing history of fumbling and the beginning of more mature choices and performances.
The entire series is based on this kind of alluring contradiction. I'm not Catholic, not even Christian, but I honestly cannot see how this show can be offensive to anyone. Sorrentino's take on religion and the system of belief in general is very far from liberal or conservative absolutism; he uses his renowned magical aestheticism to create a space for all voices to converse – a space where religion and art collide in a supernova of beauty on every possible level. Unlike Willimon who wages a war against the political system to reveal its inherent ugliness, Sorrentino gently takes us to the heart of conservative dogma to show that religion is a personal story whose contradictory nature must be nurtured and celebrated. In the very first scene, our young pope, Lenny Belardo, struggles to crawl out of a heap of sleeping babies.
It is a story about finding maturity in faith.
The eccentric, brilliant mix of intellectual aestheticism and tongue-in-cheek comedy of The Young Pope is only made better by the almost perfect casting. Silvio Orlando particularly stands out as the football fanatic, Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello who even though represents the Pope's nemesis, is undoubtingly the most comic character in the series. Cheeky contradiction invades all aspects of Sorrentino's drama: narrative juxtaposition, cinematography, music etc. Imagine listening to "I'm Sexy and I Know It" in the background of a sequence where the Vatican's most esteemed authority gets dressed for the Cardinals' address.
Not to mention that Sorrentino's frames are a source of pleasure in their own right, I have truly enjoyed watching every minute of The Young Pope. Emotional, witty, beautiful, funny, original the show has all elements I need to keep me anxiously waiting for a second season. Don't be long, Mr. Sorrentino!
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
The Brutal Mel Gibson Is Back
If you are reading this review you have probably seen The Passion of the Christ (2004) or at least heard of it and the controversy it stirred over the gruesome brutality Mel Gibson unabashedly portrays on screen. For obvious reasons, the film could not wear the "true story" badge that, 12 years later, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) proudly does. This time, Gibson takes his Christ to World War II to tell the modern-day miracle of American corporal Desmond Doss, a religious and peaceful young man who despite his refusal to bear arms or commit any act of violence, saves the lives of 75 soldiers in his division during the Battle of Okinawa.
The film features an incredibly diverse cast; Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Bracey and Vince Vaughn, all pushed to limits I never thought they would reach. Who would have thought that the sweet boy-next-door Peter Parker has been carrying so much unnoticed potential? He may not look like the real Desmond Doss at all, but his innocently childish face renders the purity of Doss's character, and his emotionally fierce performance conveys the vigor of his faith. However, the person whose presence is felt the most during the 140-minute-long movie is Mr. Gibson himself; his brutal and raw energy becomes the moving force behind every single shot. While watching the film, I caught myself unconsciously clenching my body in a fetus position as a way to fend off the violence on the screen. Gibson's violence is not the gory slaughterhouse kind that invests in feelings of disgust (that never gets me anyway); it is violence that brings our physical and human vulnerability to unprecedented proximity – he brutally invades the bubble of our reality to bring our insides out for everyone to see meaningless, absurd, and vicious as they are.
Although it has been described as a "religious bomb," the way I see it, Hacksaw Ridge preaches faith not religion. I am well aware that Mel Gibson is an extremely religious individual, and I mean it dogmatically and aesthetically. Like it or not, you've got to respect him for his discipline as a director and his courageous indifference to Hollywood standards. In a time where miracles are ridiculed and our sole idea of heroes is sexy bodies in spandex suits whose superpowers are measured by how much damage they can inflict, Gibson shows us a real hero whose only superpower was his faith – a real hero who only wanted to save lives all lives!
For those who could not understand his message the first time, Gibson is saying it again, louder and in a much more mature voice: we need to jump into the very heart of violence to really understand the powerful nature of love.
The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Human Doesn't Have to Be Melodramatic
I had great hopes for this film.
A bestselling novel, a daunting director and screenwriter, a topnotch cast – what could possibly go wrong? Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans (2016) had so much potential that was sadly wasted on forced sentimentality.
Lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) find a dead man and a baby in a drifted boat. Having suffered miscarriage twice, Isabel persuades her husband to bury the man and keep the baby to raise as their own. Overwhelmed by his love for his wife, the morally righteous Tom reluctantly accedes; however, four years later, feelings of guilt resurface as he finds out who the real mother of the baby is, and the couple slide into a deadlock dilemma where everyone eventually has to suffer.
The story is great. It has all the elements of a carefully weaved narrative: rounded characters, a moral predicament with an intrinsic human dimension, a gripping plot. What went wrong here is that Cianfrance was so obsessed with eliciting a strong emotional response from his audience that he turned his film into a monotonous melodrama. I do understand how emotionally complicated the question asked by the story is and how deep it delves into the nature of empathy and human guilt, but that doesn't mean shoving this in our face in practically every scene of the two-hour-long movie.
Fassbender was great, and Vikander – despite her childish physique and appearance – is a fierce actress, but I don't think Cianfrance succeeded in exploring the full range of her talent. Both Fassbender's and Vikander's robust performance was pushed to the background and lost to the coerced sentimentality of the picture. My personal favorite part of the entire film is the opening twenty minutes where the relationship between Tom and Isabel develops; it was simple, beautiful and effortlessly powerful.
I honestly have nothing else to say about the film, that's how bland I felt.
Oh Rachel Weisz was in the movie too, just to let you know.
So much potential wasted.
Alps was so close to becoming another brilliant Yorgos Lanthimos film but, unfortunately, it fell flat as nondescript, self-absorbed attempt at creating significance out of absurdity.
I know for fact that Lanthimos is brilliant and he is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I can't pretend to enjoy this one. I never complained about Lanthimos' abnormal-made-normal stories and techniques and I never will (I love them actually); this movie, however, lacked the glue that hold these elements together and came out as an uttered great line.
Alps is a good idea ruined by execution. Sorry, Lanthimos.
Dogtooth (2009): Bringing the House Down
Before anything, this is a film you MUST watch. Period.
For exactly 10 minutes after the credits showed up on screen, I sat there open-mouthed and glued to my seat, unable to control the myriad of feelings that had been stirred inside me while slowly realizing that I had probably watched one of the greatest movies of the century (according to Manal (myself), this is an unarguable fact).
Two sisters and a brother are raised in a big, secluded house and are made to believe by their parents that they can't go to the dangerous world outside until their dogteeth fall out – a story that you do not fully get your head around until halfway through the film. The background story of why the parents are doing that and to what ends is almost completely overshadowed, as if Yorgos Lanthimos is precluding the emotional attachment and inviting us to examine the significance behind the allegory.
Most of the uncomfortable, eccentric vibes you get down your spine while watching the story unfold are caused by seeing this family living by rules outside our denotative system. They are told facts that run contrary to our common beliefs, they are taught words with different references, and, consequently, experience the world from an alien perspective. The fact that the allegory is presented realistically heightens the absurd element to a great comical extent (a Lanthimos trademark where the anomalous is presented as normal, creating the aforementioned absurd effect). In one scene, as a kind of entertainment, the father plays Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" and tells his kids that this is their grandfather singing. While the kids awkwardly (but joyfully!) dance to the song, he translates the song to them as follows: "Dad loves us. Mom loves us. Do we love them? Yes, we do. I love my brothers and sisters because they love me as well. The spring is flooding my house. The spring is flooding my little heart. My parents are proud of me because I'm doing just fine. I'm doing just fine but I will always try harder. My house, you are beautiful and I love you and I will never ever leave you." Representing the ultimate authority, the kids unquestionably believe whatever their parents tell them, including that their mother can give birth to animals and that the cat is a dangerous animal that feeds on human flesh.
The parents in the film do not practice their authority primarily by enforcing fear and discipline but by presenting the kids with a brand new system of significance whose signifiers no longer match our signifieds (among many others, they use the word 'keyboard' to refer to the vagina, and 'zombie' to refer to a yellow flower). This might sound pathetic and deplorable if we see it from the outside – outside the system they live in. However, if we are in their shoes, we will see nothing abnormal and deal with the authority's commands as common sense. Ironically, by the end of the film, we gradually realize that we are the target of the allegory and that our presumably 'outside' world is another construct we are trapped inside. Whatever family values we cherish or religious dogmas we believe in or humanitarian beliefs we hold dear are all part of a bigger system made to confine us. Now we roar with acid laughter because we know we are the subject of the cruel joke.
Whether we are capable of breaking free, physically or figuratively, is left to you to decide in the typically-Lanthimos, mind-baffling ending.
I have probably said it to everyone I know, and I have to say it again: I love Lanthimos' mesmerizing frames which foster a compelling sense of confinement and stagnation. They are awkward, but beautiful awkward. Besides, the performers' enunciation and gestures are in absolute tandem with the overall cynical spirit of the film.
It's my second Yorgos Lanthimos film, and the second time to be assured Greeks are still capable of making epics.
I give the film 10 out of 10 (and a kiss of appreciation to Lanthimos!)
Love, Sex and the Aesthetics of Euphemism
I always have problems with beginnings – the beginning of an article, the beginning of a film, the beginning of a relationship, simply because beginnings are crucial in setting the tone and pattern that will lead you all the way through till the end. Naturally being affected by all the negative social media propaganda that Gaspar Noé's Love (2015) has stirred, I was reluctant to even begin watching it because I am inclined to believe that films with explicit sexual content (except for Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, and I will tackle why in another review) are made either to sell like cheap porn for lucrative reasons or to assume a false air of originality and experimentation. I have finally decided to watch Love after it was recommended by a trusted friend of mine, and at the end of the day, one has to constantly push their limits in terms of artistic tolerance.
Back to the beginnings, Love begins with a three-minute scene taken in one shot by a steady camera of two people having what seems to be – and what actually turns out to be – unsimulated sex. After overcoming my feelings of discomfort, I started to understand what the Argentinian director is trying to do here. Is it a pornographic scene? It definitely is. But is it meant to be sexually arousing? I would have to argue for a no. Sexual excitement requires a certain amount of build-up, but jumping directly and unexpectedly into the act generates nothing but feelings of shock and unease that would need some time to fade away.
The story then unfolds in a backward linear plot. We are introduced to Murphy (the man in the opening sex scene), a frustrated young man who lives in a small apartment in Paris with his detached girlfriend and their son. The memory-evoked reversed narrative is instigated by a voice message he receives from the mother of his ex-girlfriend Electra (the woman from the opening sex scene), asking for his help to find her daughter. The man and the woman from the first sex scene are no longer strangers; we get to see how they broke up, how they managed their relationship, and finally how they met, with a heap of very long unsimulated sex scenes in between.
As a voyeur (a person who discreetly watches other people in intimate, usually sexual, positions) I was extremely confused since the enjoyment element was missing. Is it because the sex scenes were too many, too long, too real, or too unnecessary? In one of the scenes Murphy says, as a cunning gesture to voice Gaspar Noé's desire, his biggest dream is to make a movie like no other that truly portrays sentimental sexuality. He also tells Electra: "I want to make movies out of blood, sperm and tears. This is like the essence of life. I think movies should contain that, perhaps should be made of that." Well, we see a lot of sperm and tears in that film, there is no doubt about it. It is true Love depicts relationships from an exceptionally crude, raw angle I have never seen before. Sex in cinema – and in life in general – is an uncanny subject; it lies at the essence of everything, everybody knows it is there, yet nobody talks about it overtly.. not in realistic terms at least. The film feels emotionally real. Too real. And not just when it comes to sex, but also to dialogue and performance. In one scene, Murphy tries to get Electra back and he keeps knocking on her door, after a few seconds she opens the door, apparently under the influence of drugs, and screams at him in the most deranged manner you could ever imagine. The camera does not move; it feels like a terrified neighbor watching the scene from the stairs. Most of the camera movement and angles follow the same pattern throughout the movie: the neutral uninvolved medium shot. Mid-film I realized it was not the sex scenes that made me uncomfortable but the fact that the film is devoid of any cinematic, stylistic euphemisms. In conventional romantic films, there is an invisible line separating the romantic from the sexual – love from desire. The subtle message is always: love is sublime and desire is vulgar. The reality of the things, and as presented in the film, is that both are inseparable in their sublimity and vulgarity.
I cannot tell for sure whether I like it or not. Cinema, as Slavoj iek puts it, is "the ultimate pervert art" because it does not directly satisfy our desires but manipulates them. It does not show us our capabilities, but give us the illusion that we are capable. Cinema draws the line between imagination and reality and keeps crisscrossing the boundary: it takes imaginary elements and roots them in reality, and sugarcoats real elements in imaginary wraps. The trick is not to call a spade a spade, i.e. not to place two firm feet on one side of the spectrum; otherwise you would shake the balance between reality and imagination that the viewer cannot find in real life.
Whatever your sentiments are towards the film, Noé – purposefully or inadvertently – raises some important issues: what if cinema does away with the aesthetics of presentational euphemism? Would it undermine its role as an artistic medium? Would it put the viewer on the defensive, being constantly faced with the unrefined reality of what (s)he dreads/desires?
The way I see it is that Noé created an extremely stimulating film, not sexually as he probably desired but intellectually and sentimentally.
I'm grateful I watched Love alone and had the chance to struggle with and make sense of all those feelings and thoughts by myself. I can imagine how uncomfortable it would be watching it in a movie theater with other people, let alone how the actors felt while shooting!
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Enjoy the Psychedelic Ride
The underlying premise of any vampire movie is "what if your friendly nice neighbor is a scary vampire?" Jim Jarmusch reverses the question and wonders "what if the scary vampire is actually a friendly nice neighbor?" With regard to Gothic aesthetics and narration, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) pumps new blood into the vampire genre (pun intended) and explores the soft and vulnerable – almost mundane – side of the bloodthirsty creatures.
Thanks to the out-of-this-world, dreamy ambiance Jarmusch intricately creates, watching the film feels like being under drug effect; you are enjoying the mesmerizing images and music while contemplating the main characters' unfolding relations and existential ordeals. The mix of Western and Oriental music to a great effect shadows the compelling mise-en-scene designed to bring oddities and opposite elements together in visually harmonious frames. Take a look at the color palette and the construction of the film's frames, each is deserving of making its way to your Tumblr wall as such. The one in which Adam lies naked in bed with Eve strikes me as extremely symmetrical; the two bodies (female and male) are facing each other, not as a mirror's reflection, but as two complementary opposites – a dovetail. The hair colors are white and black – two ends of a spectrum – but together they form the color scheme of the whole image including the lovers' slumbering bodies. Not to mention the intermingling of actors' arms and legs that evokes the image of a tree.
As a literature student, I love all the literary allusions the film is abundant with. Even Adam and Eve's (Hiddleston and Swinton) relationship feels like it came straight out of one of the imaginary worlds created by Poe or Byron. One cannot also ignore the sly Christopher Marlowe twist.
Tom Hiddleston is good but the one who really stands out in all her exquisite beauty, grace and talent is Tilda Swinton as the ultimate motherly female figure/vampire. Swinton was perfect for the unconventional role that somehow subverts the male/female dynamics in any vampire tale. The myth goes that Count Dracula was the father of all vampires and, thus, in most vampire movies (save for a few exceptions, Queen of the Damned is one) prominence and power are given to male vampires. In Only Lovers Left Alive, Eve not only represents a loving wife, but also an all-wise, all-knowing matriarch that bestows her all-encompassing affection on everyone around her including her husband who exhibits an unmistakable immature demeanor. That is definitely an interesting twist to the story of creation.. don't you think?
The film does not require you to dig deeper than that. Just lie back and enjoy the psychedelic ride.
"Emotions are all we've got!"
This one left me emotionally confused. I tried to make sense of how I felt and why I felt this way but eventually surrendered to the fact that sometimes you have to let some emotions sink in without passing them through your mind's filter. As Harvey Keitel's character (Mick Boyle) puts it, "emotions are all we've got." The two old friends, Keitel and Caine, look back at their rich and seemingly glamorous lives trying to make sense of how things turned out to be. Their attempts to assign meaning to past events and relationships fail when they realize that everything is slipping through their fingers (their memories and their youth), and all they're left with are emotions.
Paolo Sorrentino is known for his penchant for the visual. Youth's story line and underlying themes are visually narrated with some stunning image-music choreography.
Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda (in this startling cameo) all take the imminent decay of the characters they are playing to the heart and deliver some heart-wrenching performance.
A Heartfelt Drama in One Room
A young woman is abducted by a middle-aged man who goes by the name Old Nick and is imprisoned in his backyard shed for six years during which she gives birth to a kid who thinks that the room he grew up in with his mother is the entire universe. But we see none of this. The film opens with the two main characters, Jack (the five-year-old boy brilliantly played by Jacob Tremblay) and his mother (played by the talented Brie Larson) going about their everyday life in the room – sleeping, eating, exercising, playing, reading
etc. with occasional visits from the mysterious Old Nick. Upon Jack's fifth birthday, the mother decides that it is about time to get them both out of the room.
I won't go into the details of the extremely bold scheme and the mother-son heart-wrenching argument scenes, but they finally do it and they make it out of their prison – a crucial moment that, you might think, will bring about the two characters' happily ever after. However, Room is not a happily ever after story; it is a story about what happens after the happy ending – a story about transitions. The film is divided exactly into two halves: inside and outside the room, two places that are equally confining for Jack and his mother. In the first part of the film when we are trapped inside with the two, we could feel the sense of confinement in mother's eyes but Jack's giggles and jumping around make us feel that the small room is as big as a playground. When we leave the room – an overwhelming moment for both of them – the room's concrete walls are replaced by psychological confinement materialized through personal disappointments and people's judgments.
The two main characters are tied by blood but differ drastically in the way they perceive the universe. For the mother, the room is the strange unfamiliar grounds; whereas for Jack, the room is the only universe he has ever known and the outside world is the unfamiliar, intimidating terrain. Despite the change of perspective, the bond mother and Jack share helps them become stronger, reach out to each other and overcome the difficulty of transition. Regardless of the melodramatic undertones, the story shows that it doesn't matter on which side of the wall you're standing because the only walls there are are the ones we build around ourselves and around other people, and that love is the only power that can overcome those walls.
The natural chemistry between Larson and Tremblay is phenomenal. Period.
Demolition: The Blissful Beauty of Destruction
"Together, they would watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse, and they would smile at the beauty of destruction." Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Sometimes all you need is one piece to fall off the seemingly perfect construct you've built around yourself. Only then, you'll realize what's been long buried beneath and almost forgotten. That one piece was the tragic death of Davis' wife in a car accident in the revelatory opening sequence of Demolition.
Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a young banker who is married to Julia, his boss's daughter, and, from an outsider's point of view, seems to have his life all figured out. Davis' subsequent emotional numbness and irrational behavior become a source of persistent annoyance to everyone around him, leading him to realize his own metaphorical death which is brought about by Julia's tragic, yet necessary, death – it is the one piece that had to come apart so that Davis would notice the malfunction of his ostensibly ideal life, just like the leaking fridge in his kitchen. And this is when he decides to take everything in his life apart to get to the bottom of who he really is and how he really feels. On his journey of self- exploration, Davis crosses paths with Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service representative of a small vending machines company, and her rebellious 15-year-old son, Chris (Judah Lewis).
I don't think I ever wanted this movie to end. I've watched it twice so far and I'm still overwhelmed by the emotional genius of both screen writer Bryan Sipe and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild). Following Davis' course of thinking, I've been trying to take things apart in this movie to understand why I loved it so much and why I end up crying like babies every time, but I just can't put my hand on one thing – it's simply everything. Not a single scene nor a single line in Demolition felt redundant or slightly detaching; they are all beautifully connected like notes in a musical piece, all leading up in an emotional crescendo to an inevitable coda that lingers way after the film ends. And despite the excessive use of montage, it all felt natural and poetic in a way. This is one film made with passion.
Peering into the nature of human relationships is extremely difficult, not to mention trying to dismantle them. That's why Davis' fumbling through his existential ordeal changes from irrational to funny to understandable to incredibly relatable. We don't only take pleasure in watching Davis taking his life apart but we envy him for this melancholic yet euphoric realization of the truth that usually comes after destruction, and which we all yearn for in one way or another. Destroying entails thinking in retrospect, necessarily resulting in painful regret but one that is usually accompanied by blissful realization. Few are the movies that manage to go that deep into human relationships and come back with a bittersweet sense of salvation. Also, the unlikely relationship between Davis, Karen and her son Chris becomes a psychological shelter for the three emotionally misled characters where they get to nurture their empathy and readjust their inner compasses.
The chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Judah Lewis is undeniable, and is highlighted by Sipe's witty script and both actors' topnotch performance. Gyllenhaal's growing acting skills are literally getting out of control (and I mean it in a good way). I don't think anyone could have portrayed Davis as harmoniously as he did, putting you in tears while bringing a smile to your face. After Enemy, Nightcrawler, and Southpaw, Gyllenhaal is slowly and steadily becoming one of the smartest and most talented actors today.
One more thing that makes this experience unforgettable is the music. I've mentioned before that this is a film made with passion, and nothing can give voice to passion as much as music does. I will not talk about the brilliant choices of songs and the perfect song-scene synchronization because that will only make sense when you watch the film.
Demolition will leave you miserably heavy-hearted but spiritually elevated beyond words.
I give it 10 out of 10
The Lobster (2015)
The Lobster: The Absurdist Brilliance of Yorgos Lanthimos
In a world where staying single is a breach of acceptable social norms, single people are isolated in a hotel and forced to find a partner in 45 days otherwise they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. People who somehow manage to escape to the woods are called 'loners' and are occasionally hunted by the hotel dwellers. An incongruous story that must have made Kafka dance in his grave, not only because it breaks away from logic but because it takes the absurd to a new level of significance. The Lobster has all elements of absurdist fiction – dark humor, irrationality, and cynicism, add to that a lurking social criticism that hits your mind and soul hard. The narrative is constructed in a way that lures you into giving up all your logical defenses after the first few minutes and totally surrender to the surreality of events. I truly envy writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos for having a mind that can come up with such twisted and brilliant stories.
If you have to choose between pretending to have feelings when you don't and pretending not to have feelings when you do, which would you prefer? This seems to be the kernel question of the film. The hotel dwellers are forced to pretend they have feelings for people in order to avoid being turned into animals. On the other hand, the loners are banned from showing feelings for each other even if they do. This absurd conundrum levels harsh criticism against a society that advocates binary opposition, an inherent concept that has become part and parcel of the human belief system of love and relationships as well. From the beginning of the film, it is made clear that there are no gray areas in this world; you're either heterosexual or homosexual, a size 44 or a size 45. It might not be that severe in the real world, but emotional extremism is just as bad. If you are in a relationship, you are expected to love to the fullest, and if you appreciate isolation and individuality, you are stigmatized as a heartless loner all the way through. Whatever you choose, you have to bend your personality or change something in yourself to fit in either group. In the film, this forced appropriation takes an emotional and a physical form, and it keeps you wondering which leaves more permanent scars, emotional or physical transformation? The story disparages a society that fails to acknowledge the paradoxical human condition – humans need company, yet they are innately loners; they love other people, yet they love themselves more; they have feelings, yet feelings are not meant to last forever; they are spiritual, yet predominantly physical. A world that fails to recognize this complexity is a pathetic, oppressive place.
As usual, Lanthimos' script is funny, iaconic and strikingly smart; all the dialogues are meaningful despite their seeming absurdity, and the scenes are meticulously written to contribute to the intricate world of the story and its underlying intended significance. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) visits David (Colin Farrell) in his room and tells him that he has to carefully choose the animal he wants to turn into because, as an animal, he won't be able to have a sexual relationship with an animal of a different species, something that he can't already do as a human being since he has to find a 'matching' partner. The whole conversation is very humorous and absurd, and the joke continues as we see how people strive hard to find matching qualities in their partners including nosebleeds, limps, good voice, shortsightedness and lack of emotions. An extremely elaborate and cunning joke that deconstructs the myth of soulmate.
I think the acting is great and one of the main sources of dark humor and irony in the film. Imagine a story about love and relationships where actors don't show a single hint of emotions and talk and walk like constipated corpses most of the time. Martin McDonagh has already rediscovered Colin Farrell as a comedian in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths and it is always nice to see another director picking up on that streak. Ben Whishaw and Aggeliki Papoulia are notably spectacular.
As if it isn't enough for Lanthimos to subvert storytelling and acting norms, he seems to play with artistic trends too. If you are familiar with the Lars von Trier's cinematographic experimentation (Antichrist and Melancholia in particular), you will see how Lanthimos uses slow motion and classic music to create a grandiose effect that stands in a hilarious contrast with the event taking place on the screen.
The Lobster is another must-watch multilayered witty narrative from the impeccable imaginarium of Yorgos Lanthimos.
It went straight to my heart and to my all-time favorite films list.
All Hail, Kurzel! All Hail, Fassbender!
In this postmodern rendition of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Justin Kurzel excels as a dashing experimentalist and Michael Fassbender gives a performance of a lifetime claiming the tormented hero utterly his own.
The problem with adapting a Shakespearean drama is that it has probably been read, performed, interpreted, represented, and redefined a gazillion times before, and to think you can positively contribute to the huge, already existing Macbethian discourse is an extremely challenging endeavor. Moreover, your audience have the upper hand; they know the story and almost all the lines by heart and could academically lecture you on the tiniest of details. But this didn't seem to dishearten Australian director Justin Kurzel from adopting a f*ck-it-I'm-gonna-do-it-my-way-whether-you-like-it- or-not attitude to carry on with this risky business. Kurzel made some cinematic decisions that he knew he would most likely be crucified for (already many film critics didn't miss a chance to do so as soon as the film was released); nevertheless, his dark, bloody, visually overwhelming adaptation shocked me but with no doubt satisfied me on every possible level.
The visuals play the major part in setting the film's tone and ambiance, and you can call Kurzel's shots overtly pretentious and unrealistic all you like, but what's wrong with that? The film wears the badge of pretense proudly. Isn't Shakespeare's sophisticated language pretentious? Kurzel uses his images as a poet uses words and translates Shakespeare's poetic brilliance into emotionally engrossing visuals, almost to an orgasmic effect – I didn't want some of the long shots to go away because they were so consuming and beautiful to look at. Kurzel is not ashamed to use visual pastiche by borrowing elements from Frank Miller and Zack Snyder and, consequently, turning Macbeth into the most unlikely comic hero of our time.
However, if I ever choose to call the film a 'contemporary' adaptation of Macbeth, the visuals would not be the only reason. The screenplay adds something uncannily ominous to the Shakespearean melodrama that directly pertains to modern consciousness. The stress on meaningless violence, brutality and war brings to memory recent events of killings and decapitations. Also, how children are represented as agents of death and threat is a colossal point of departure from the original text. The film opens with a shot of a dead child and a few seconds later we realize it is Macbeth's son's funeral. The infamous three witches are accompanied by a preternaturally looking little girl. A boy who gets killed during war becomes the recurrent apparition that encourages Macbeth to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth sees a waking vision of her dead child stained with blood. Banquo's son becomes the threat that lingers after the film ends. Children have always been the literary epitome of innocence and subverting this image to the extreme opposite to express fear, guilt and menace is a relatively modern concept. This kind of thematic distortion is reflected in the narrative's time line which disruptively keeps moving forwards and backwards to add to the overall sense of confusion and distortion.
Now let's talk acting.
Usually, playing Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth is any actor's dream opportunity to toot their horns for a while. Few are those who do away with the generic melodramatic performance and play those characters with regard to the unique perspective of the work in question. Those are the ones I call smart actors and Michael Fassbender is definitely one of them. This Irish-German talent has read the subtext of his role and fully understood Kurzel's vision that his Macbeth reveals a new dimension of the iconic tragic hero I have never seen before. Fassbender's Macbeth is a Macbeth of postmodern proportions; he is no longer the beloved noble hero with one tragic flaw that brings about his demise, but a hero with many opposites. He is attractive yet most of the time covered in dirt and blood (physically and figuratively). He is gentle but in a cruel, detached way. He aspires to build only to destroy. I got the feeling that this Macbeth is not driven by blind ambition but by vengeance and a lurking desire to ruin and deconstruct a universe that has betrayed him – the opening funeral scene gives us a glimpse of how he came to be like that.
Fassbender is very much in control of his emotions that not in one scene did I feel like something has been exaggerated or played down. The Macbeth I know goes through a journey of self-loathing and regret that leaves him a total wreck; on the other hand, Fassbender's Macbeth is already disillusioned and wrecked beyond repair. You can tell how dark his inside is from scene one, something which makes him all the more intimidating and incomprehensible. I left the cinema truly wondering what kind of pain and darkness Mr. Fassbender had to summon up from his soul to play that part (sounds melodramatic I know, but I really mean it).
Two other people who are equally stunning are Marion Cotillard and Sean Harris. Cotillard has both the innocence and the venom to play Lady Macbeth to perfection, and Harris, with enough maturity and experience up his sleeves, turns the nondescript Shakespearean Macduff into an emotionally and physically powerful character that stands out as Macbeth's antithesis.
One final player that invisibly contributes to this harmonious equation and should never go uncredited is the gripping music. Composed by Jed Kurzel (Yup, Justin's brother), the film's original score weaves the ominous atmosphere into existence and completes Macbeth's dark world. Just listen to the first 10 minutes of the soundtrack and you will feel that the music is literally mourning and wailing over Macbeth's eventual destiny.
By all means, go watch it and leave your prejudices at the movie theater's door.
The Revenant (2015)
All That Went Wrong with The Revenant
It's the Oscars season
hooray! And everyone seems on the lookout for who deserves the ultimate Hollywoodian honor and who is going to go home with a gold Uncle Oscar. I've been avidly following the ceremony for years now, but that doesn't necessarily mean I hold it in the highest regard; everybody knows it's all politics at the end of the day.
Today I went to the cinema to watch this year's most talked about film, Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, trying so hard to ignore the two Golden Globes, the 12 Oscars nominations and the 8.3 IMDb rating. To cut things short: I was immensely let down, and here are my reasons why:
1) Iñárritu is a genius, there is no doubt about it, but geniuses are obviously not immune to over-inflated ego. The Mexican director has become popular with film critics and moviegoers worldwide for his ability to make films that are both aesthetically and thematically stunning – films that are so beautiful to look at and so touching you could easily relate to. Who would ever forget the heartbreaking realities of Amores Perros (2000) and Babel (2006)? And the surreal worlds of Biutiful (2010) and Birdman (2014)? After those masterpieces, The Revenant looks like a sheer act of muscle flexing. We get it, Iñárritu! You can do magic with your camera; you can take beautiful long shots, you can make a man-bear fight look so goddam real, you can film inexplicable gore and violence like no one has ever done before, yet I was bored to death because I couldn't feel the slightest connection to anything or anyone. The film comes out visually outstanding but cinematically fragile because it lacks the substance that should hold it together. The entire plot is based on a father- son relationship that wasn't developed enough (or wasn't developed at all) for the viewer to emotionally connect with Hugh Glass, the revenant, which made me feel that the whole survival quest was a bit on the absurd side.
2) Clichés. Clichés. Clichés! The film is so rife with clichés I actually thought Iñárritu is playing some kind of a joke on us. A die-hard hero, a classic mindless villain, a dead Pocahontas, a wise chief and of course some careless Frenchies. And don't you think the clichés just stop at character level, they run deep to include predictable plots and extremely bromidic lines and dream sequences. I don't mind that the story is a cliché revenge story, it's the treatment that concerns me. The Revenant is basically about a man who wastes two precious hours of our lives looking for another man who killed his son and left him for dead, and when he finally finds him, the evil man's dying words are revenge is no good. The end. That's it, I swear. If you can see something beyond that, please feel free to contact me.
3) I don't usually like to dwell on this point in my film reviews but the improbability of the events was pointless and so difficult to ignore. So we have a man who is fatally attacked by a grizzly bear, almost smothered to death, shot at, falls down a waterfall and off a cliff, stabbed and beaten (I hope I didn't forget anything), yet he miraculously survives! I expect to see him in the next Avengers movie.
4) Number four is not really a shortcoming but a disaster redeemed. The outstanding performance by all the cast members makes up for the one dimensionality of the roles they play. Domnhall Gleeson and Tom Hardy hit all the right notes with exceptional maturity (even though I thought Hardy's Texan accent was a bit funny, but maybe on purpose?). Both are actually growing on me in a speed of light. DiCaprio was amazing as usual but I don't think this is the performance he should get an Oscar for. I do appreciate all the trouble and the physical pain he had to go through but compared with his other performances I'm sorry Leo, you can do much better. Anyways, if he grabs an Oscar this year, he would still deserve it, retroactively.
The music and the sound editing in general were annoying. I would've sufficed with DiCaprio's incessant heavy breathing.. which is equally annoying to be honest.
Go watch Cast Away instead. If you have seen it already, watch it again it would still be a more enjoyable experience.
A Feast for the Eye and Soul Not the Mind
The number of I-hate-you-then-I-love-you moments I have had during watching NBC's Hannibal since it started in 2013 until it sadly (for us viewers) ended last Saturday is too great to count. However, the disappointment I am feeling right now because I will see no more of Hannibal is a success in and of itself. At first I did not know how to go about this review in the most logical way possible (it is really hard to convince my mind to do so!) so I came up with the 'ingenious' idea of putting my remarks into points as randomly as they jump to my head:
-Bryan Fuller is brilliant, there is no doubt. His decisions to carry Thomas Harris's novels to the surreal and metaphysical realm and to focus on the complicated/mind-twisting/homoerotic relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham are very bold. Nonetheless, Fuller delved so deep into surreality it sometimes cost the show its sense of realness. Do not get me wrong, I am and always be pro adaptation of all sorts and kinds, but Harris's Hannibal saga is basically a unique study of the human psyche and its psychological dimensions – something you cannot tackle without having at least one foot in reality. What makes Hannibal Lecter a truly frightening character is that he feels very real and if you drop that, all you have is a mythical character no different than Sisyphus or Medusa. This is my only problem with the show. The result was unmistakable pretentiousness in storyline and dialogue, especially in season 1. It is smart, I admit, but in which universe would a dialogue like that take place? It feels pompous and forced. Same can be said about some turns of events; each of the series primary characters has been stabbed, burned, or shot at least three times over the course of the show, yet they miraculously managed to come back to life! As a result I lost my sense of surprise. By the time I reached season 3, I was like "Oh, X lost his head. No problem, he'll somehow find his way back to the show." In Egyptian Arabic there is a saying that describes inexplicable events in films and it goes "el mokhreg ayez keda" which roughly translates to "because the director wants it so!" Fuller definitely wants it so.
-If you get over the above mentioned problem you will find the show utterly phenomenal. The dynamics between Hannibal and Will especially in seasons 2 and 3 are captivating and make up for the sometimes awkward dialogue. In the last two seasons events move faster and become more focused on the Hannibal-Will relationship which gets compellingly more rounded. It is by far the most twisted and gripping romance of the 21st century. Season 3 is remarkable too with the introduction of the Red Dragon which pumps new blood in the aesthetics-invested season.
-Want to know more about the aesthetics of voyeurism? Watch Hannibal. The imagery picks on the surreal side of the story and turns it into a feast for the eyes indeed. I will never forget the sinister Wendigo, the dying stag, and the wings of the Red Dragon. In spite of the gory nature of some scenes, the literally breathtaking cinematography transforms them into surreal sensuous/sensual paintings that you would want to see again and again. That effect is greatly aided by the artistic editing and the choice of music – end result is transcendental. The murder scene in season 3 finale "The Wrath of the Lamb" is an example. Imagine with me this stomach- churning scene: two men covered in blood trying to kill another man by stabbing, slashing and biting him. Naturally, nothing pleasant or aesthetic can come out of it; however, it turns out to be the most beautiful thing I have seen in a very long time. Surreal. Horrifying. Mesmerizing. Heart- wrenching. Also, Siouxsie Sioux' song "Love Crime" makes it hit deeper in the heart.
-Everyone on the show did a brilliant job, even though Hugh Dancy (Will Graham) was overdoing it sometimes, but once you get used to his performance you can sit back and enjoy the chemistry between him and Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal Lecter) play out. Richard Armitage was one hell of a pleasant surprise.The only person that was unbearably annoying is Gillian Anderson playing Bedilia Du Maurier. As a character, I couldn't wrap my head around her motives and development – I think Fuller put her there only to serve as a receiver of Hannibal's and Will's mind contents. As an actor, her poker face and slow articulation made me want to slit my wrists every time she was on screen.
-Saving the best for last, let's talk some Mads Mikkelsen. I will try my best to put his overwhelming sex appeal and my apparent subjectivity aside.. but heck with objectivity! Objectivity is a delusion, so just let me take a deep breath and start rambling about this Danish talent. Anthony Hopkins' name is forever linked to Hannibal Lecter because of his legendary performance in the cinematic adaptation with no prospects of anyone even coming close. Mikkelsen did it. I am not saying he is better than Hopkins, all I am saying is he was smart enough to decide to play a different tune and show us a new side of Hannibal.. the charmer, the mind player, and the vulnerable as well. Thanks to Bryan Fuller and Mikkelsen, Hannibal Lecter's character becomes alive again with so much vigor and articulate details missing in previous adaptations. His clothes, his movements, his choice of words, his highly controlled facial expressions – everything he does unpretentiously and effortlessly oozes menace.If this show was a living being, Mikkelsen would definitely be the heart of it.
Seriously, who would have thought that watching a cannibal kill people and cook them for meals would be that yummy?
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
A Dark Musical Like No Other
My heart broke into three hundred different pieces while my mind was watching in awe. This is exactly how I felt after I finished Dancer in the Dark (2000).
I can most definitely assure you that the twisted mind of Mr. Lars von Trier has no boundaries when it comes to cinematic genius. Written and Directed by von Trier himself, the film creates a genre of its own playing with both musical and drama along the way. I remember once reading an article somewhere on von Trier and how he expressed his desire to experiment with all the cinematic genres that ever existed... and, oh boy, he is doing it, and he is doing it in his own way. Breaking the Waves (1996) is an unconventional romance that taps on theology. Antichrist (2009) is horror manifested in psychological gore. Melancholia (2011) is a very narcissistic end-of-the-world sci-fi. Nymphomaniac (2013) is porn! There is no wonder then when he tries his hand at musicals.
What I am getting at is that watching a von Trier film is similar to eating pickles dipped in ice cream, the only difference is that von Trier's dish actually tastes sublime. He knows how to convince you that pickles are not that salty and ice cream is not that sweet. You realize the discrepancy and the cruel irony only after you have eaten and enjoyed the meal. Proof? Try watching Dancer in The Dark a second time and compare it to any mainstream musical. What you will find is the most basic musical instruments, the dancing that does not even sync with the music, the abrupt shifts, the crude editing, the self-referential camera angles, and exaggerated sentimentality. Funny thing is that despite everything, you still enjoy the story and empathize with the characters wholeheartedly. The canny Dane not only experiments with the genre, he actually destroys it.. mocks it, and in the process, he mocks us as well.
Although the film cannot be called a Dogme film, it certainly owes a lot of its stylistic choices to the Dogme rules, which does not strike me as a surprise since the late 1990s was high time for Dogme productions. Personally speaking, there are a lot of things I admire about Dogme films, one of them is the almost always brilliant casting. The cast of Dancer in the Dark seems to be from everywhere around the globe... Icelandic, Danish, French, American, English, German... etc. However, they fit in together harmoniously and not a single actor seems out of place. Despite the hostile tension between her and von Trier during filming, Bjork's performance turns to be a real knockout. I don't know whether she was perfect for the role or vice versa, all I can imagine is von Trier thinking of Bjork and then tailor-writing the role for her. No one, I really mean NO ONE, could have played the helpless blind Selma Jezkova as Bjork did.
You might have noticed that I did not give a synopsis of the story. With von Trier's I would rather not to. Just be prepared to watch a musical like no other.. a musical where crimes are committed, innocence is murdered and dreams are crushed.
Enjoy it. Break your heart. Then laugh at yourself.
Elsker dig for evigt (2002)
Open Hearts: Closed Spaces
I have seen so many Dogme films but I can wholeheartedly say that Open Hearts "Elsker dig for evigt" (2002) is my favorite and the closest to my heart.
Cecilie (Sonja Ritcher) is a cook in her early twenties who is deeply in love with and also recently engaged to Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Their relationship is put to test when Joachim becomes paralyzed for life after a car accident. The woman who was driving the car (Paprika Steen) feels obliged to help the couple and pushes her husband Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) to comfort Cecilie, unaware of the devastating outcome.. Niels falls in love with Cecilie.
The thing about Dogme films is that they are capable of putting you in a very close position to the characters, almost in a crude way. Susanne Bier uses this honesty to gently place us inside the most closed space: the human psyche. Open Hearts does not just slam you with naked reality and intimate details - it does not want to shock you like most Dogme films, it takes you gently by the hand and allows you the same amount of confusion and indeterminateness the characters are feeling. And it does that equally; you can never blame any of the four protagonists even in their lowest moments because it is raw human emotions they are showing and simultaneously you are experiencing.
The film could leave you melancholic or hopeful, it depends on how you see it, but what I am well sure of is that it will give you no closure, no answers, no relief of any kind - and this is so heartbreaking, just like life itself. It puts you in direct contact with the awful/beautiful fact that despite its intensity and realness sometimes, all the spectrum of human emotions is transient. My eyes teared up at the end of the film, not because I felt sorry for anyone or anything, but because I felt betrayed by the film's stark honesty. I wanted an ending to this emotional mess I have witnessed/experienced and instead I was left clueless and disillusioned in the middle of nowhere.
Okay, enough with this subjective philosophical rambling. Let's talk about some technical aspects.
Although Bier breaks away with some of the Dogme rules, I thought the use of Super-8 camera to show short fantasy sequences is a brilliant touch to take you a few steps away from reality and bring you even closer to the characters. Anders Thomas Jensen's script is gripping and flows effortlessly even when characters do not say a word, which leads us to the carefully chosen and amazing cast. I personally think that a great deal of the genius of the performance in this film comes from Bier herself and the kind of free yet intimate atmosphere she has provided for her actors. She does not aim at getting the best angles or making them look attractive, she only allows them the freedom to be themselves no matter how that would look like.
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Crazy but Loved It
I love any piece of art that plays with metafiction, especially this piece of art is created by the brilliant Martin McDonagh. The film is equally funny, witty, crazy and aesthetically engaging. I don't know how McDonagh does it, but here it is!
Also great performance by Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken. The smart narrative is made grand by their impeccable presence. Seriously, give those two people any role in any movie and they will nail it without an effort. As for Colin Farrell, it wasn't surely the greatest performance of his career but I guess McDonagh meant it to be so since Farrell's character is nothing but McDonagh the writer himself.
The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
The 'Pinterisque' Comfort of Strangers
One naturally expects nothing less than that when one watches a Harold Pinter screenplay turned into a film. If you are not familiar with Pinter's plays then you might be with his screenplays The Servant (1963), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) and Sleuth (2007). Pinter's most prominent trademark is his ability to render his screenplay adaptations completely independent of their original text. In other words, his Pinterisque touch does not transform but rather creates anew.
The Comfort of Strangers (1990) is based on the Ian McEwan's novel of the same name. Basically, the story is about Colin and Mary, a young couple who travel to Venice on a vacation to think about their future together. In Venice, they encounter an older couple, Robert and Caroline, who eventually turn their vacation and relationship upside down. I do not want to rant about how different Pinter's screenplay is from McEwan's novel. This is a closed deal. What strikes me as supremely beautiful is how Pinter manages to bring to light such psychological intensity and incendiary conflicts using the subtlest language imagined. It is almost like watching poetry in motion if that makes any sense.
It is out of the question that Pinter would not have accomplished that effect without Paul Schrader's exquisite talent, who is a screenwriter himself by the way (does Taxi Driver and Raging Bull ring a bell?). Schrader succeeds in giving Pinter's world the required mystical substance; the long and medium shots of the charming Venice, the camera pauses, the movement of actors, the choice of subliminal music it all contributes to creating this metaphysical atmosphere felt only in classic paintings. Have you noticed the similarity between shots of Mary and Colin in bed and the paintings adoring the walls of Robert's apartment? You're welcome.
The gender and power conflict that takes place in this kind of world is all symbolic and is expressed in allusions rather than direct words. Colin, played to good effect by Rupert Everett, is meant to be beautiful in picturesque way akin to that of Greek statues. His beautiful masculinity is to be contrasted with Robert's (played by the genius Christopher Walken) grotesque masculinity. Same can be said about Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Caroline (Helen Mirren) who represents two different aspects of femininity: passivity and servitude. The encounter between the young couple and their older counterparts might seem a little bit awkward in realistic narrative terms. Like seriously, who would go sleep at a strangers' house and let them take their clothes away? However, in symbolic terms, this confrontation is necessary to highlight the gender fluidity and power conflict in any relationship. Robert and Caroline are the distorted mirror that Colin and Mary see themselves into. They see the dark side of who they are and their future demise. The image they see in the mirror terrifies them and subconsciously pushes them to change to the opposite – to exchange roles. Colin sees in Robert the extreme end of masculinity and power he has been trying to practice on Mary. He becomes threatened and retreats to his beautiful, feminine self (something that Caroline and later Mary keeps referring to). Similarly, Mary sees in Caroline the extreme end of her docility and indecisiveness. She also becomes threatened and embraces her masculine self. This subversion of roles is quite evident in Colin and Mary's later sexual encounters and fantasies.
Whether this change was necessary or not and whether it has been brought about by the wrong catalyst (Robert and Caroline) or not are all questions Pinter leaves us with to ponder on. I do not care about the answers of those questions as much as I care about how enlightening and fascination watching this film has been.
True Detective (2014)
True Detective: True TV Noir (Season 1).. Update: (Season 2)
I don't think a TV show has ever managed to keep me watching with the same enthusiasm and vigor from the first minute of the first episode till the very last minute of the season finale.
True Detective has.
All credit must be given to novelist turned screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto for writing an almost impeccable script that reintroduces film noir to television – a genre which is already disappearing in cinema. If you are not familiar with film noir it can be summed up in one word: manipulation. The screenwriter emotionally and intellectually manipulating the viewers into following a certain narrative that might prove misleading in the end, characters manipulate themselves and each other, and motives are manipulated to create insolvable moral conflicts. True Detective starts with two people separately speaking to a cam recorder (a self-referential tool evoking surveillance and governance). They speak about each other and relate to us events that happened in the past. Pizzolatto makes it clear to us that we will be manipulated whether we like it or not – our access to the truth is limited by mediation and conflicted sources. In the second episode, Detective Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrleson) states: "It goes on like that. . . you're looking for narrative, interrogate witnesses, parcel evidence, establish a timeline, build story.. day after day." This is what Pizzolatto does, what Detective Martin Hart and Detective Rustin cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) do, and what we do to ourselves as well.
Something else makes Pizzolatto's script really smart. I'm not going to talk about the dialogue which is honestly the best I have seen in years – nobody can disagree with me on that one. It is the attention to details infallibly strikes a balance between reality and fiction. Characters are so real yet so engaging; real because of all their weaknesses and uncertainties, and engaging because of the cloud of cynicism shrouding their judgments and their world. Usually writers sacrifice the realness of their characters for the sake of making them likable; however, Pizzolatto has masterfully avoided that pitfall in creating Hart and Cohle's characters. Detective Hart is an unfaithful family man and Detective Cohle is a cynical sociopath (a typical hero of the film noir genre), yet you can't help but fall in love with both of them. This is due of course to Harrleson and McConaughey's first-class performance and the unmistakable chemistry between them. Pizzolatto is to be thanked for that too; he cared about the vertical dimension of characters as much as the horizontal. In other words, his characters are not only deep and complicated but also move forward naturally over time. The story time is very tricky; it goes 17 years in the past and moves slowly to our present time. To follow characters' progress without making them look too sloppy or too rigid requires a lot of talent, a hell lot of it. The perfect tempo of the narrative also helps in this smooth character development.
Enough with Pizzolatto – my infatuation is clearly getting out of control!
Before True Detective I wasn't really a fan of Matthew McConaughey, and I think that makes my opinion a little bit less biased. If you can imagine a Doctor Gregory House without the sense of humor then you might get close to who Detective Rustin Cohle is. Playing a cynical nihilist is not an easy job, and rendering him somehow lovable makes the job even harder. McConaughey studied his role well and took it to the heart that I can't imagine anybody else as Rust. He picked up Pizzolatto's love for details and literally grew into and with his character, with all its weakness, strength, despair, rigidity, frustration... etc. I can say with a clear conscience that McConaughey's performance in True Detective has secured him a place among the finest actors of his generations, something that has been previously stated in Mud (2012) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
The choice of soundtracks greatly participated in making my experience of watching the show truly unique. The country/classic songs are carefully picked and hit in the right places and in the right times. The opening credit song for example, The Handsome Family's Far From Any Road, has taken a firm grip of my heart and hasn't let go ever since.
Now back to Pizzolatto (I'm hopeless I know!). The ending of the show is the reason why I referred to it earlier as "almost impeccable." It is not how Rust gave up his appealing cynicism that let me down, it's how the monster hunt ended. It was too theatrical for the overall tone of the show. Too showy. Too grotesque. I nearly ended up regretting them catching the bad guy. Pizzolatto has deliberately stepped into the pitfall I mentioned earlier. Why? I have no idea!
I haven't watched season two yet, but I like the idea of having fresh new characters and narratives – it keeps the good blood pumping. All I can do now is wait and pray
Please, Nic, don't let me down!
True Detective (Season 2): Not Bad. Just Too Bad It's Still Called True Detective
God knows how hard I have tried not to compare Nic Pizzolatto's second season of True Detective with its predecessor, but I failed miserably. I am truly sorry, Nic! You cannot just create two stories under the same name and expect people not to compare them. Humanity is weaker than that you know.
Read more here:
A History of Violence (2005)
My favorite Cronenberg movie so far
When Cronenberg teams up with Mortensen, usually something good comes out. However, this time it was something brilliant.
Apart from some Cronenberg-trademark gore scenes of fighting and killing, the movie follows a relatively steady pace that slowly gives rise to menacing tension. What was brilliant about A History of Violence is that it shakes the subconscious solid bond that the viewers usually create with the protagonist. This unspeakable act of confidence and the natural identification with the protagonist are infringed by the whirling circles of suspicion that the viewer finds himself entangled into.
Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello gave some plausibly mature performance. And Ed Harris was a wonderful addition to the cast as usual.
Not a Chick Flick.
Usually I'm not into romantic comedies (not to mention futuristic romantic comedies!), but Timer can comfortably be the exception to my rule.
The movie poses a silly, yet a deeply philosophical assumption.. what if you can tell exactly who your soul-mate is and when you're going to meet him/her. It's a romantic variation of the never-ending existential argument 'What if you know the future? Would it make you any happier?'
The movie was funny, no doubt about it! But what I really liked is the film's foot-on-the-ground development of events and ending. This doesn't mean that the story is entirely realistic, but at least it didn't have the usual fairy-tale, happily-ever-after kind of development. The story starts with a lot of questions and leaves you struggling with even more.
Timer is not another chick flick. I guarantee that.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
McQueen Does It Again.
I've said it before and I'm saying it once again: Steve McQueen is a visual artist in every sense of the word. He fully understands the power of the image and brilliantly exploits that in channeling his message. McQueen's films are not made to entertain (those who watched Hunger and Shame will know what I mean); his films are made to shock and engage. He uses gruesomeness to shock, and visual beauty to engage.
12 Years a Slave is shockingly powerful in its adherence to reality and its details. The audience are forced to watch the graphic whipping and torture scenes, and McQueen unapologetically elongates those scenes and strips them of any non-diegetic music so as to deepen their realistic effect. Watching a man hanged to a tree and trying to keep his toes to the ground for a few seconds is an awful thing to watch, and will naturally instigate feelings of pity and sympathy. However, watching the same man with his relentless endeavors to keep standing on his toes for more than 3 or 4 minutes is definitely an agonizing experience for the viewers. The persistence of the silent and still shot invades your comfort zone and forces you to identify with the man.
But being gruesome does not mean the film is not beautiful. Aesthetically speaking, 12 Years a Slave is a cinematographic feat. McQueen's visual trademarks are easily spotted (and admired). Each frame is a triumphant work of art; the placement of the camera, the colors, and the mise-en-scene are all done so carefully that I did not mind having those 'McQueeny' still shots all the time. Each frame is a beautiful painting with an elaborate statement.
Performance-wise, all actors excelled, even though some of them had really small roles. And of course, Ejiofor and Fassbender were phenomenal (surprise, surprise!). The only thing I could not understand is the presence of Brad Pitt in the film. His character is small but important in terms of plot line, but to have him pull this weird southern accent of his and talentlessly preach about slavery is completely annoying! I believe Pitt was used only for publicity; just another big name on the movie's poster.
I don't know why but whenever I write a review on any of McQueen's movies, I end up writing about McQueen himself and his idiosyncratic style (that's how good he is!). Maybe because it is not about what he presents but how he presents it. 12 Years a Slave is a slavery movie but not the usual slavery-is-bad-don't-do-it-again movies. It goes beyond the main theme and takes you by the hand to gruesome/fragile condition of the human soul.