Land of Wolves

Today’s topic: the darkness of Sicario. What an experience, sitting in an empty theater, gazing at the pulse pounding images of the recent arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s new thriller – Sicario. Villeneuve is by definition a master of depicting ominous, claustrophobic atmospheres with acclaimed previous efforts like Incendies, Enemy and the 2013 hit, Prisoners. To say that Sicario is the best movie of  the year is an understatement. It’s a film, so dark, so powerful that it will stay on as one of the finest directorial efforts, ever. But, I’m not here to make a review out of it. It’s not my job. What I intend to do, without spoiling too much, is try to go in deep and analyse the impenetrable darkness of this exquisite thriller.

Sheep can sometimes turn into wolves.
Sheep can sometimes turn into wolves.

Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt), one of the few female FBI agents in Arizona receives a top assignment and  joins a task force for the escalating war against drugs led by  government official Matt Graver (a knockout Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Colombian, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro giving his best performance in years). The plot is all an excuse for an in-depth study of humanity and morality in today’s world: a world devastated every single minute by relentless wars. That’s why you can watch this film without the sound on and still be punched in the gut. It’s not about dialogue, it’s about images. Images flaring in front of your eyes. The task force is sent out to Juárez, possibly the most dangerous place on earth. A hornet’s nest. A sewer filled with all the earth’s rotting scum. A pit where lambs are thrown for sacrifice. A city so deeply buried in crime and violence that everyone’s already given up. No one’s fighting the real problem. Kate is optimistic. She thinks she’s out there to try and do some good for her colleagues, her friends, her nation. It’s not about that. “Welcome to Juárez” says Alejandro in a very peaceful manner while they drive by a police crime scene: mutilated corpses hanging naked from a bridge.

It is what it is. It’s no fantasy. Things happen all the time. Yet, since most of us live far, far away from all the “evil countries” we think we’re safe. We’re not. Kate’s drug war is not the same war politicians fight in Washington. It’s not about rules, treaties, agreements. It’s not about shaking hands and smiling to the camera. It’s not about giving out environmental speeches. That’s a different story. What Kate’s fighting is personal. There is no class to what happens in the border cities. There are no speeches. There are no photographers. It’s personal. It’s eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. It’s about getting so dirty, so filthy that no matter what you’ll do with your life in the future, you will always carry the past with you. The past will always be the haunting present. There’s no way to cut off the links. The connections will always stay. Blood will always be blood.

A shower won't wash away what Kate has just witnessed.
A shower won’t wash away what Kate has just witnessed.

Kate starts smoking, and she continues digging deeper and deeper into what seems to be a never ending pit. The never ending river of mysteries. She discovers things she shouldn’t have dared even to look at. A police officer tries to shoot her. That’s what it all comes to. There are no limits. Values don’t mean a thing. There is no government, there are no laws. Laws don’t apply to ganglands. Laws don’t apply to this world. At a certain point in the film, all of a sudden we switch perspectives. From Kate we move on to Del Toro’s Alejandro. A man of few words. He’s someone they call in when there is an interrogation. He’s ruthless. No mercy for anyone. When he asks questions, you better give it to him. Because he’ll ask again, in a very painful way. And never point a gun at him. You don’t to bite Alejandro because he’s got more teeth than you. He’s had a dark past that we only discover at the very end. He’s got reasons to be who he is, and do what he does. No one objects. Alejandro acts, because he has to. And now a fundamental question, which you’ll probably ask yourself: does he fight for the right side or the wrong one? Well, neither. There is no line. If there ever was one it was crossed a long time ago. By the wrong people. Now, even the right ones don’t know the difference anymore.

The man in the suit, Alejandro.
The man in the suit, Alejandro.

Even the veterans like Alejandro or Graver have lost sight of the real objective. Maybe there was one, once upon a time when people still believed in honor and justice. In a war for the common good. Not anymore. Now everyone’s covered in mud. Soldiers, officers of the law, special agents, all shoot to shoot. They shoot to kill. Kill because they’re angry, because they saw their colleagues blown to pieces by a booby trap, because they saw their mothers in a pool of blood, because they saw their homes burning, because they forgot where it all started. One of the last, mind-blowing action sequences takes place in a tunnel. Shots are fired, people are killed. But the main thing that I caught from that scene is the tunnel itself. The tunnel that for the most part of the task force operatives is nothing scary. It’s nothing new. They’ve seen worse. They go in, shoot to kill, throw in a grenade, come out smiling. But for newcomers, like Kate, there is a whole different side to it. You go in and come out a whole different person, a beast. A beast with claws and blood thirsty teeth. You lose yourself and you become something else. You step on the wrong mystery, the wrong case, and you face consequences. Consequences that will trouble you forever. Sicario means hitman. Anybody can kill for money. Anybody can hit the bottom.

Because that’s what Sicario, in my opinion, is about: a world that is considered an underworld but in fact, is much larger than what we all imagine. It’s a world that once you step inside of it, there is no coming back. You can’t spin around and leave. You stay there, screaming, but nobody can hear you. Even if you scream at the top of your lungs. Nobody can hear.

Because that’s what darkness is. The land of wolves.

Take a breath. The storm is coming.
Take a breath. The storm is coming.

Biutiful Man

Today’s topic: the presence of death in film. It’s always there, isn’t it? That cold feeling in your stomach, afraid that the character you’re following might be a few steps away from his last one. Goose bumps. Will the movie end? What’ll happen if he/she dies? Death can be the running engine of an entire film. We wait for action, and often action results in a character’s death on-screen. It’s what sometimes stimulates us to watch the movie – we wait for something to happen, we wait for the story to unfold, we desperately need an event to occur in the last minutes of the running time. However, out of the many death-driven films out there (Mar adentro, Amour, The Downfall) the most curious and, oddly enough, beautiful  one I’ve ever encountered is Iñárritu’s 2010 acclaimed drama, Biutiful. Ironic title.

Lead by a staggering performance given by Javier Bardem, the film tells the story of a man, named Uxbal, who is destined to die. Soon. And he knows it. That’s it. That’s the whole plot for those who’ve never heard of this project. Uxbal is as human as humans can get. His hair is becoming grayer and grayer, his skin pale as milk, his eyes like oil wells, dark. He lives in the rough neighborhood of Barcelona, where the tourists refuse to come visit. They’re right. Only a dead man like Uxbal can walk those streets. He’s got nothing to lose, yet at the same time, everything. His two kids, looking up to him. Looking up to who? A man who lives off other people’s lives. In this case, immigrant Asian workers trapped inside illegal underground workshops, sewing clothes that will end up on Barcelona’s black market. Uxbal treats them better than the usual smugglers, in some scenes reminding us of the good Samaritan. Does it matter? He is a criminal living off his last days. A cloud over his head, waiting for the right moment to let it rain.

Family man. Last chance to make things right and then it's gone.
Family man. Last chance to make things right and then it’s gone.

Uxbal has powers. He hears voices. Spirits telling him the end is near. He urinates blood. Wipes it with a handkerchief. Does it matter? You’re going to go, old man. However, Uxbal is not afraid of dying. He knows it’s not up to him to decide. But he must fix some things. Fix the cracks he’s opened. He must put food on the table. He must  kiss his little daughter’s forehead. He must teach his children a few valuable life lessons; no swearing, always fight for what’s right, never back down, and learn English. Death slowly  creeps into Uxbal’s soul and body, weakening his physique, stepping on his back until he can’t stand up from the toilet. He coughs, and every time he does it, a minute goes by. A moment flies away. Uxbal’s ultimate goal is to get off the streets, stop the criminal activity. Stop the pain he’s been inflicting on other people his whole, entire miserable life. That’s when in one of his workshops there is a gas leakage that kills all the sleeping employees; women, elders and babies. That’s blood on Uxbal’s hands. It’s the ultimate punishment. A reminder that no one gets away without consequences. Death might take you away from the world you’re living in but it won’t take you away from your sins. There is no way out of that. Forgiveness is what he asks for. In vain. Death is no listener. You need to get dirty one last time. Uxbal does. Dragging out the bodies by night, to the beach, to the open sea, making it look like a refugee tragedy. The bodies, floating in the open sea are everything that Uxbal’s tried to fight during the last moments of his life. There is no redemption, no last minute salvation. It’s take it or leave it.

The last crime.
The last crime.

Uxbal cries. Death has stolen his tears. His cheeks are dry. Is he really crying? That’s what death does to you. It makes you wonder if you’re still feeling anything, if you still got what it takes to be considered a human being. It makes you think about all the evil things you’ve done while you were alive and hits you with the reality: it’s too late, old man. You’re gone. You’re history. Your thoughts, your opinions, your advice and suggestions, they don’t matter anymore. Your words of love, anger, frustration and happiness are gone with the wind. Uxbal spins around, takes a deep breath and looks up at the night lights of Barcelona. What now, spirits? Is it time? One last word to his daughter. The death of a criminal. A peaceful death. They hold hands. And while she admires his family ring, a beautiful object that has connected Uxbal’s predecessors since the early ages, Uxbal drifts off…

Uxbal’s in a forest. That’s death. Peace, quiet, silence. It’s snowing. A man appears out of nowhere. An angel? Uxbal’s lost father? They smoke together. Laugh.

That’s when Uxbal, for the first time in his life, feels clean. Saved.

Ending the journey of life.
Ending the journey of life.

The Duke

Today’s topic: the controversial icon. I’ve known the name ‘John Wayne’ since I was a little child. It made me feel safe, it made feel right at home. That familiar face, those reassuring blue eyes, and that walk. He would come up on screen and it was celebration time for me and the entire family. An old friend. That’s who John Wayne is to me. Because let’s face it, maybe not my generation, but anybody who’s lived through the 50s, 60s or 70s  must remember what it felt like when the big man hit the theaters. Of course, a lot of people think of him as the racist, homophobic, over-the-top republican washed up Hollywood actor. Yet, there must be a reason why he’s still famous and remembered by millions as “The Duke”.

You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.
“You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.”

Go ahead, complain about how every movie of his was about cowboys shooting Indians, cowboys taking over the prairie, cowboys killing buffalos. I won’t argue. But there is a lot more to who he really was than just that first impression. Wayne (with an acting career that spread well over 50 years), in fact, was an inspiration to such future celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Martin Scorsese and Michael Caine. He was great friends with Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Walter Brennan and James Stewart. He was revolutionary in the way he brought the Western genre to the big screen time after time and still managed to be a box office hit. However, Wayne was and still is misunderstood by the public. Seen as the ‘macho’ type, the one who always comes fists first, words later. The kind of character who punches someone and then asks the questions. A very common mistake committed by Hollywood, that still applies to today’s situation. John Wayne was type casted in the last twenty years of his career. He would be hired to make B-movies where he knocked the guy’s teeth out, or rammed through a door with his powerful kick. But as Wayne said many times: “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one if his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.” 

In fact, many people don’t know this or refuse to believe it, but John Wayne’s walk was invented by the actor. Like the greatest performances we see on screen by actors like Daniel-Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Wayne would undergo tough, compelling changes in the way he behaved and talked. The famous walk was invented and built in its entirety by the actor himself. He wanted some of his characters to have a past, dark motivations, scarred memories. He wished to push the character development as far as possible, to the extreme edge. And look how he fooled whole generations of viewers, letting them believe that it was all part of his true self. The slurred speech, the funny look, the way he reached for his rifle, Wayne had it all under control and all hidden under a great actor’s mask. A hidden identity.

The angry bastard in Red River.
The angry bastard in Red River.

Of course, he also had a bad reputation amongst other Hollywood stars and well known directors; he would argue like a madman with frequent collaborator, the legendary John Ford (director of Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), up to the point where the two would start cursing at each other and one of them would walk off set. During the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Wayne and actor-friend Walter Brennan would fight with co-star newcomer Montgomery Clift over political ideas; Brennan and Wayne were hardened Republicans while Clift was a convinced Democrat. Clift, after the movie got released, said he’d never work with the two again, especially with John Wayne. The Duke was  famous for his heavy drinking and chain smoking that eventually led to his death in 1979. He was also a strong supporter of the Hollywood Blacklisting, convinced that “un-american Americans need to stay out of here”.

So what is there to admire? Wayne’s passion and love for what he did. He loved acting, he loved people and he loved life. He loved simplicity and when we watch him act out his lines we see honesty and truth in the way he delivers them. Want to see an unusual, subtle performance by the tough guy who breaks people’s noses? Watch The Quiet Man (1952) and notice the transformation. For me, it will always be the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo (one of Tarantino’s favorites). The way Dean Martin’s character introduces the big man, Sheriff John T. Chance. His confident walk, his posture and warm look. A familiar face in a saloon full of bandits and drunks. There would always be hope when he  appeared on the big screen. His presence would and still does, make everything seem better. He can be the bad guy, the asshole, the hardened Sergeant, but he will always have a positive impact on how we view the picture. And I’ll never forget when Bruce Dern’s character in The Cowboys murdered John Wayne in cold blood. The tears I cried when I was a kid watching that scene. The many nightmares I’ve had since seeing that final bloody shootout. How could a nobody just go ahead and kill the man who’s never been killed before? How could someone put a deadly bullet into the back of a legend? I couldn’t comprehend and to this day I don’t have the courage to watch that scene in its entirety. It takes guts to kill John Wayne.

The way, Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.
The way Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.

What’s my point? Perhaps I’m just talking to myself, perhaps I just want to remind myself of some childhood memories or perhaps I just like to brag about some of the forgotten idols. Whatever it is, I like to think that Wayne is and always will be appreciated for his presence, his warm smile and the fact that John Ford admitted that “Wayne will be the biggest star of all time”. Don’t let the controversies fool you, because we all live in a world that’s built on controversies. That’s no news.

The Duke will always be The Duke.

Sail on, Captain, sail on.
Sail on, Captain, sail on.

Sniff Sniff

Today’s topic: sex addiction in film. A hard subject, difficult to get by certain audiences. A subject you want to look away from as soon as possible. Often visually disgusting, sickly portrayed, yet it’s an important subject matter that perhaps only cinema can deal with in a morbid way. For me, the best film about any addiction and in fact one of the best films ever made is Steve McQueen’s second feature, Shame. 

Steve McQueen, the British filmmaker behind Hunger (2008) and the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2013, 12 Years a Slave, directed the gut wrenching Shame without holding any punches. Quite the opposite, he delivers them with brute force and somehow manages to leave us with bruised hearts, not flesh. Shame tells the simple day-to-day story of New Yorker Brandon (Fassbender, phenomenal) who lives an ordinary life by day but once night sets in, he reveals his true self: a sex addict. Brandon works as a businessman, rides the subway everyday and is the owner of a spacious apartment in the city. His story is the story of every man and woman who feel pain every time they wake up. It’s the story of people not able to look each other straight in the eye. It’s the story of loneliness crawling into our disconnected society. It’s the sizzling truth.

He needs this.
He needs this.

Sex addiction like any other kind of addiction, consumes the addict. It devours him and his whole life. It not only damages the person’s condition but the feelings too. In fact, Brandon has a sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who after a long time of silence storms into his life and turns everything upside down. In the mornings Brandon wakes up, urinates, has a healthy breakfast and goes to work. By night, he chases skirts; sometimes he takes a girl on a quick date, sometimes he pays. With Brandon it’s always classy – a nice restaurant, a luxurious hotel room and then all the problems are solved. Sometimes it can be rough, like on the side of the road, but Brandon is always the true gentleman who walks the girl home or accompanies her to the subway. He’s never had a long lasting relationship. Why? It’s too much for him, what’s the point of waking up to the same face for the rest of your life? What’s the point of coming home to the same smell? What’s the point of making love to the same body? It slows you down, it makes you lose focus, lose your condition, your habits, your dreams. That’s why when Brandon feels lonely, he hooks up with a girl who knows his needs over the internet. She knows what he likes, she knows his favorite position, his favorite style, she knows he likes to take it slowly. Slowly it is. But then Sissy comes into the picture.

Brother and sister: enemies or allies?
Brother and sister: enemies or allies?

Sissy is the fresh breeze. She’s  the upcoming change. She’s the wind that rocks the trees. She rocks Brandon’s lifestyle. She’s the wake up call. She checks his laptop, uses his shower, has sex with his boss, takes up his time, constantly fights him and steals from him. She’s the lost sense of self respect that yells from the depths of loneliness: ” Remember me?! Please, do remember me! I’m here!”. That’s when Brandon starts to realize. Addiction turns into pain and awkwardness. He meets a beautiful girl; smart, funny, big eyes, subtle movements; she’s the one. He rents a room with a beautiful view of New York’s harbour. And that’s when it hits him. He can’t do it. He can’t “make love” this time. Why? Because this time it would really mean making love. Making love to someone who matters to you, making love to someone  who either you can attract or scare away. It’s either gain or lose everything. Brandon shakes his head, and tries to do it, but he just can’t. It won’t connect. He’s helpless. It’s a defeat for a man who’s learned to ignore feelings. It’s a defeat for a man who’s only really good at sex. He pounds his fists in frustration and anger against the glass window. The girl leaves. He’s a prisoner who won’t accept his fate. He’s a soldier fighting a never ending war. The addiction sucks the juice out of him. The addiction’s winning.

Looking for answers in the dark corners of New York.
Looking for answers in the dark corners of New York.

Brandon goes jogging. Watch out for that sequence of him running across the busy streets of New York: you’ll learn more about the human condition and sense of existence from that tracking shot alone than from most of the movies that come out today. It’s a run of desperation, it’ a run in search of guidance. He runs and runs, and nothing can stop him. What can stop him is the answer he’s looking for. Not there yet. Brandon walks the streets at night, this time not on the hunt for a woman but a man. He kisses a stranger. The kiss of desperation. Desperation again. What will stop me? What will stop this everlasting thirst? What will it take to put me down on my knees?

His sister’s suicide attempt, that’s the answer. Only when Sissy slices her wrists in Brandon’s bathroom, does he realize that there is, in fact, a true meaning to life itself. Addiction doesn’t fulfill you, it doesn’t satisfy, it doesn’t shape you as a human being. It all depends from Brandon, the way he deals with his sister, the way he deals with love, the way he deals with his forgotten feelings. The feelings he once had as a boy. The passions he had when he carried a lunchbox to school. The dreams he had when he sat in the theater on opening night. It all comes back to him when his estranged sister’s on the edge of dying. She’s all he has.

And now, he’s awake. He can run.

The last run.
The last run.

Just Like Honey

Today’s topic: cinematic poetry. What’s so special about Sofia Coppola’s Oscar winning drama Lost In Translation? For those of you who have heard something about it, it’s the story of two people who find themselves forced to stay in Tokyo for a week. The movie studies their growing relationship. It’s a delicate love story, not the one you’d expect. There is no raw sex scenes, no sweaty buttocks, no passionate kissing. It’s a story that vibrates and resonates inside each one of us and if it’s your first viewing of it, well… it’ll stick with you.

Sofia Coppola, daughter of world famous director Francis Ford Coppola, creator of The Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now, writes from the bottom of her heart and with each passing minute we feel it more and more. Perhaps it’s her personal experience of a failed relationship (with director Spike Jonze) that makes this movie what it is or perhaps it’s the choice of shooting location (Tokyo, at its finest and scariest) that lets the film take us on a magical trip, inviting us to look deeper, beyond what’s on screen, deep down the characters’ flaws and personal struggles. The characters, you ask? Two lost souls, lost in a sea of misunderstanding and loneliness; Charlotte, played by a  superb 18 year old Scarlett Johansson, is the wife of an independent photographer who shoots local rock bands and punk singers. Bob Harris (Bill Murray, just watch) is on the other hand an aging Hollywood movie star tied by a contract to a whiskey commercial shoot.

Strangers in Tokyo.
Strangers in Tokyo.

Bob meets Charlotte at the hotel they’re both staying at. He’s smoking a cigar and emptying his second glass of Scotch on the rocks while she’s finishing off her fifth cigarette. She said she’d quit, but what’s the point? He said he wouldn’t get old, but what’s the purpose? They look for hidden beauty: she keeps looking out the window, he wanders through the halls of the luxurious hotel. He calls his wife from time to time, but quickly realizes that he’s only doing it because the etiquette says so. Both, Charlotte and Bob, are tired of being who they are or maybe, just maybe, they both don’t know for certain who they really should be. She’s a child and he’s moving on in years, yet they’re both at the same moment in life. Who am I? Why am I walking this way and not the other way? Why am I in Tokyo? Why can’t I smile? Why do I have to pretend to be someone I’m not just to make other people happy? These are questions that sound awfully familiar. We’re forced to obey rules, laws, respect the person next to us, behave this way, that way, talk in a certain manner, walk in a certain manner. That’s when Tokyo ties the two protagonists.

Will there be a tomorrow?
Will there be a tomorrow?

They hit it off, and no. It’s much more than a sexual short term relationship. It’s much more than friendship. It’s something each one of us would like to experience one time before leaving planet earth. The feeling you get when you meet someone who fulfills you. Understands you. Holds your hand and smiles. And you know it will all end soon. It’s a bond for the ages. A bond you’ll keep in your heart until the very last moment of your existence. Bob and Charlotte have that bond. They can be themselves only with each other. Bob can only show Charlotte his hidden melancholy, his fear of slowly vanishing into nothing, and Charlotte can share her insecurity and sense of regret only with the aging actor who won’t just kiss her and tell her “it’s going to be all right”. No. He will look her in the eyes, and let a delicate smile appear on his face. Or he will just caress her hair as if she was a newborn and give her a light kiss on the forehead as if it was her first day of school. It’s the mutual understanding that makes a true relationship possible and exclusive. It’s the mutual respect that counts whenever we look into each other’s eyes. It’s when we stop counting the passing of time, when we stop checking our answering machines and our electronic mail. It’s when we can walk in the street and shout at the top of our lungs and not feel embarrassed. They run through the narrow market streets of the Japanese capital, they crash parties and let their off-beat voices flow through the party’s karaoke. They go to bed together, like father and daughter, and watch each other slowly fall asleep. They talk about their ambitions, their unreachable dreams, their lost hope. They hold hands and make it look like there will be a tomorrow. It’s never gone. It’s there.

It's not about sex, it's about connection.
It’s not about sex, it’s about connection.

And when it’s time to go separate ways – Bob back home to his wife and job, Charlotte with her husband to another country – they know what it means. They won’t forget. And like that, Sofia Coppola writes and directs the love story of the century, a simple account of two people finding each other in the midst of chaos and desperation. Visual poetry at its finest, and when the two look at each other for the very last time, magic happens.

Bob whispers something into Charlotte’s ear. What? We don’t know. We can’t hear. That’s magic.

The final whisper.
The final whisper.

Coin Toss

Today’s topic: Cormac McCarthy’s mind through the eyes of the Coen Brothers. Two different worlds: McCarthy, a veteran writer, known for his violent, slow-paced narrative in novels like Child of God, The Road and Blood Meridian and the Coen Brothers – creators of the concept of  “thought provoking, dark comedy” and quirky screenwriters, famous for their off-beat characters and dialogue in films such as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and True Grit. When these two, opposite worlds meet what do we get? One of the best thrillers and film experiences of all time: No Country For Old Men. A bloody, savage tale of an ending era and the birth of a new one. The tale of blood spilled in the desert. The tale of an unstoppable chase. The tale of humanity.

No Country For Old Men tells the story of a man who finds a suitcase full of drug money, a killer who chases him, and an old sheriff who tries to stop the killer. Plain and simple. But what marks this film and separates it from all the other chase-scenario thrillers is the unique voice that it carries. It’s a philosophy class, to be honest. That’s what I think. That’s what the old folks used to say. The Coen Brothers let the words of McCarthy flow through their screenplay. What they do is they direct them in a way that underlines every syllable and noun and impacts the viewer by gluing him to the screen.

The air is dry. The sun is up. The Texas border is crawling with sick individuals looking for a stash of coke or whatever it is they can find. Gangs organize stand-offs in the desert. Motorways are busy. Motels too. People live in trailers and buy their groceries at the local gas station. It’s time for a change. Some things need to go, others need to appear. It’s not the land of the opportunity anymore. Lawman Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) has seen enough bad doings in his life. He’s tired. He loves his wife dearly and his horses even more. He carries a gun, which is surprising because some of his predecessors, even his father and his grandpa, never did. Never felt the need to. The world’s changed. Bell’s eyes have changed. His hair is now grey, and as he recounts the bloody happenings of a summer in the 1980’s Texas, he tells the story of a whole world being crushed by evil. Evil that cannot be caught. Evil that slips through our fingers every time we get hold of it. Evil that looks straight at us every time we wake up. That’s Sheriff’s new reality: an obscure cloud taking over the bright Texas plains.

The old man and the desert.
The old man and the desert.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a simple man. Born and raised in a small town in Texas, never been to Paris or London. He’s a hunter. He has a wife and a small cozy trailer. That’s all he needs to be happy. Or at least up until the moment when he finds a suitcase loaded with money: blood stained drug money. And someone is looking for it. Someone is ready to do anything to get that money back. That’s when Moss, the hunter, becomes the prey. Fate chases him with nothing but deadly intentions. Death. That’s what’s coming. But Moss, who represents the naivety of kids chasing dreams, is too dumb to see the big picture. The money is tempting: a big house, a better job, a nice car. You can do anything if you got the dead presidents. Unless, you got a snake in your pocket. That’s when you should run.

Don't hunt if you don't know your prey.
Don’t hunt if you don’t know your prey.

But what from? Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in top form), the snake. The snake without a rattle. You don’t hear him coming. You don’t see him coming. He’s the new plague that gets into your country, your city, your house, your room. That’s who he is. He is a madman with no brakes. He is a man with no limits. He is a man who plays with life and death by making bets: a coin toss, in this case. And when he asks you to call it, you better do. Because he will not ask again. He will not give you a chance. He laughs at chance. You can’t bribe him, you can’t promise him anything because he just doesn’t care. He doesn’t obey anyone and anything. He moves only when he wants to. Why does he chase Moss? For the money? No. The money couldn’t mean less to Anton. He chases him because he must. It’s why he exists. His duty is to make your life miserable. His duty is to burn everything that Sheriff’s built throughout his career. He kills because there is no other reason for him to live if not to kill other people. And you know what’s the worst thing about him? He keeps coming. And he never goes down.

That is why No Country For Old Men is so exceptional. It’s a dark, twisted tale about the changes that our world, our lives undergo every day. The tale of a world that keeps crumbling at our feet. We wake up, we breathe for what? What is the purpose of all that surrounds us? All this destruction…

Where is the joy of living if you can’t stop what’s coming?

Evil is at your door, and it doesn't knock.
Evil is at your door, and it doesn’t knock.

You Can’t Win Them All

Today’s topic: painful comedy. It’s a thing, I swear. How can I back it up? Billy Wilder’s best picture from 1960, The Apartment. Labeled as a comedy, the story of C.C. Baxter, an insurance worker who lends his apartment to his own superiors and their special ladies, in order to get a highly anticipated promotion became an instant hit at the box office and a classic of the genre. Wilder is known for being the ”nephew” of such comedic geniuses like Chaplin or Keaton, however the gags and awkward situations are not what he should be remembered for. The writer-director was much more than that. He had a lot to say and his voice resonated through such diverse works such as Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity  and Sabrina. 

All of his films were a social commentary, be it the story of a screenwriter trying to help out an aging silent film star or the story of a journalist taking advantage of a man trapped inside a mine for his own never ending fame. Some Like it Hot was met with a lot of insecurity, and the audiences weren’t sure if Wilder made that film just for comedic purposes or something deeper than that. Well, the answer could be found a year later, in the massive hit that was The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and at the time a fairly unknown Shirley MacLaine. That’s when Wilder hit the public with the unexpected: a comedy that is also a gut wrenching tragedy about the modern way of living and…loving. A tale so revolutionary and so complex that the viewers even to this day don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the credits start to roll.

Wilder creates the character of C.C. Baxter (Charles Clifford Baxter), also known as Bud, as one of the most loveable yet pathetic characters in cinematic history. Yet why does he remain dear in our minds after the viewing of this picture? Because most of us can relate to Bud. He’s elegant, well mannered, kind and simple, but he’s also naive and ingenuous, used by the higher power, the greedy superiors who we all know exist. They use his apartment for extramarital affairs, promising the poor man a highly desired promotion. That’s one of Wilder’s main points: sometimes it’s not your work ethic and your effort that make you who you are. This was a whole new concept for the people used to the hardworking 40’s and conservative 50’s. The 60’s were considered a new era, a sudden explosion in the way people lived, thought and worked.

The idea of leading a double life, in this case cheating on your wife with your secretary or simply a girl you met in a bar, was met with great shock. How could a well respected insurance businessmen have a dirty affair and have no one notice it? Bud Baxter, in Wilder’s mind, was the typical, gentle, obedient worker, one of the most common characters in today’s world. Bud, in fact, represents the generation of people who don’t have anything  valuable in their lives, no family, no lover, no memories; a new generation of people with nothing to lose. The best example is Baxter’s apartment: a few pieces of furniture, the television that airs only westerns and commercials, a record player and that’s about it. What does he eat? Pre-cooked chicken with no taste. That’s the new way of living. After hours and hours amongst his co-workers, typing figures on the computer, Bud comes to an empty apartment with only a comfortable bed waiting for him.

Lost children.
Lost children.

The only person he really cares about and falls for is Fran, or for him, the true gentleman he is, Miss Kubelik. She’s a sweet elevator girl, another example of a modern character: she found her way into a big insurance company, yet where does she end up? An elevator. The true American dream. “Oh, the irony!” screams Wilder’s screenplay. However, even an elevator girl can be the mistress of the main executive of the company, Jeff Sheldrake. The powerful meets the poor. And then again, Wilder underlines the new generation’s soft heart and innocence by forcing the character of Fran to take sleeping pills, in order to commit suicide because of her broken dreams. Feelings shouldn’t exist in the world we live in today. Everybody has a career. Everybody wants a career. Everybody runs after a career. There is no time for true love, sentimentality and empathy. What the hell is true love? A loving husband? A loving wife? In Wilder’s movie, a Christmas family photo is enough.

We laugh at Lemmon’s great sense of humour and ability to create something out of nothing, like his classic gestures and movements while using a nose spray in front of his boss. We also laugh at the crackling dialogue between Miss Kubelik and Bud in the elevator. However, we also feel for the both of them. We feel hurt because of their innocence and they way they are treated by the higher laws. In some way, they’re both lost on a foreign island.

But Wilder, known for getting to the point, says: “Shut up and deal”.

The world is unpredictable for CC Baxter.
The world is unpredictable for CC Baxter.

Pulp It

Today’s topic: violence. Yeah, sure we can say a lot about violence. In a certain sense if violence didn’t exist cinema would be running short of movies. But by violence I don’t mean Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop or Rush Hour 2 type of violence. Why not? Well, violence has its own, specific voice and one of the most famous directors still hot in the business can be called the Godfather of violence. That man is Quentin Tarantino.

Violence can be shown on film in many different ways. Very often it’s vulgar, over the top or even madly sadistic. It can look childish like Jackie Chan swinging his fists at a pack of thugs or even Bruce Willis jumping through a window firing two revolvers and a shotgun at the same time, yet it still is the same old stupid cliché. What stands out in Tarantino’s films is the way he deals with portraying in an elegant, meaningful way the bloody art of violence. In fact, when you all hear the name, Quentin Tarantino, what do you think of? Let me guess; the bloody opening to Reservoir Dogs, or the famous quote from Pulp Fiction “Oh, man! I shot Marvin in the face!”, or the Crazy 88 stand-off in Kill Bill Vol. 1, or the Jewish scalp hunters from Inglorious Basterds, or even the monumental finale of Django Unchained? 

Can it get any more violent?
Can it get any more violent?

The point is this: Tarantino can paint with violence. He can create images so gory, so gut wrenching yet always pleasant to look at. Perhaps it’s his delicious, suspenseful dialogue that keeps us glued to the screen. Or perhaps it’s his ability to pay tribute to his favorite directors in a very fun way for the viewer to enjoy. Or perhaps it’s his memorable characters that we love and follow anywhere be it the moody Mississippi or the French farm fields. He can easily turn a scene upside down from what we’d expected and still get away with it. Remember the scene from Inglorious Basterds that takes place in a cafe called La Louisiane? The scene starts off in a very innocent manner. The Jewish rebels, dressed as Nazi officers, are supposed to meet an informant who will give them key information for their next mission. Little details, like a German soldier having a party because of his son’s birth, or the card game organized by some of the customers, or even the sawed off shotgun kept under the counter by the suspicious bartender, all of these elements manage to have an impact on what will follow. Bloodbath. That’s right. Unexpected bloodbath. But with Tarantino, the bloodbath isn’t a simple bloodbath. It’s a classical western stand-off, where two rival sides are waiting for the right moment to act and when it’s on… well, it’s ON! Guns go off, people die.

You never know what's about to happen.
You never know what’s about to happen.

But how in the world can Tarantino get away with it? Why can he create such weird, unique situations and end them the way he does? Well, I know for a fact that the writer-director doesn’t like when people go sniffing around his work, trying to crack open his words and I understand that. I do.  However, sometimes I just can’t resist.

Tarantino is known for being a strong gun-control supporter and a man who’s against drug use. You wouldn’t know that if you were basing your information on Pulp Fiction or Death Proof. But, that’s the truth. In his movies, this is how I interpret his work, Tarantino shows us that no matter how odd, how regular, how ordinary we and our lives are, anything can happen. Kill BillBride at the beginning of the movie is a simple woman who wants to get married, have a family, watch her child grow, and then what happens? Her wedding turns into a massacre and she, on the other hand, becomes a highly trained assassin who wants revenge at all costs. This is Tarantino’s trademark: life’s oddities. Violence can become anyone’s hobby. We can walk down the street, catch a bus, go to work, or– we can go to a biker club and start a brawl, ending up in the hospital at the end of the day. The titular character from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is a working class black woman caught up between an evil arms dealer and two annoying cops. To get back at her rivals, she becomes a determined con with a plan that only she knows to perfection. That’s that. Easy, right?

Don't mess with Jackie.
Don’t mess with Jackie.

And in fact, this is what it’s all about. Violence is not supposed to be considered as a brain-dead excuse for making a movie. It’s not supposed to be treated with disgust and anger. It’s a part of life. It’s something that takes place all over the world. It’s something we can all relate to, because when it comes to what’s important and worth the struggle, we all act.

Violence is the unexpected, the great mystery that keeps poking our world. Deal with it.

Wide Eyes, Wild Places

Today’s topic: Nature. Nope, it’s not a biology lesson, I’m well aware of it. What I mean by the word ‘nature’ is the key role that nature, in this case the tall Elephant grass and the impenetrable jungle, play in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

A lot of you, when you hear the words “war movie”, might immediately think of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket or in some cases even Apocalypse Now. And of course, you have the right to. Those are iconic movies not only in their genres but well beyond that. They marked a certain kind of filmmaking and a very specific way of looking at the horror of the battlefield. A realistic perception of what used to be a movie genre that spread pro military propaganda (re: The Green Berets). However, when I must make a statement on what I consider the most monumental and in a twisted sense, beautiful film, I say The Thin Red Line (1998).

The story of the American battle against the Japanese forces on the island of Guadalcanal, a small piece of rock in the middle of the Pacific, grabs you by the legs and doesn’t let go. The men, portrayed by a wonderful cast of,  during that time,  relatively unknown actors like Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, John Cusack, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and many others (including veterans Nick Nolte and John Travolta), they are the main plot. Because, well, there actually isn’t one. We follow young soldiers into the unknown, where they discover, on foreign soil, who they really are or who they used to be before their lives took an abrupt turn.

The state of mind of these poor bastards is represented by the wild, dark nature that surrounds them day and night. Why? Well, isn’t the mystery of what’s about to happen our greatest fear? The fear of catching a bullet or the fear of falling into a booby trap? The fear of getting killed on an island far away from home and our beloved ones?

The Elephant grass is tall and green; its leaves are razor blades that cut deep into every soldier’s exposed body part. Its ground is made out of dirt, hiding snakes and other wild beasts awaiting the chance to kill. That’s right. Everything moves. Everything is deadly out there. The soldiers can crawl, squat, even lie down and pray and they won’t be safe. That’s Terrence Malick’s, the director’s, point. We are guests; we are vulnerable; we mean nothing; mother nature decides whether we get to live or die. Malick’s direction, the camera following every soldier from behind and from the side, is meant to hit the viewer straight to the gut with its message: you don’t get to decide. You’re not in a position to. In fact, the soldiers know it. They await, for the first 50 minutes the sound of a speeding bullet. For them it was months, since the Japanese army first of all focused on destroying the US Navy and its supplies. Only after a long, infernal span of time, did the Japanese decide to act. And with what force. What was supposed to be taken in three days, was won over in six months of bloody battles.

Malick, a well known oilman and biologist, has the eye for little details. Even the first shot of the film is a crocodile moving through the muddy water like a trained assassin. In fact, that’s it. That tells you what it’s all about. Explosions? Huge action set pieces (in some scenes up to 3000 extras)? Breathtaking POV sequences? Yes, of course, but that’s not half of it. Peace and quiet. That’s when the jungle is at its most ominous. When the birds stop their singing, when the waters calm down, and when the sound of flies vanishes. That’s when you’re ought to worry. It’s that kind of deadly silence that the soldiers have in their hearts while fighting for survival. The silence in their hearts. The memories of a lover in California, the mental pictures of mom’s apple pie, the sweet sound of children laughing. That’s all in their minds. That’s all they can think about because of the silence. Because of the sun that can’t get through the twisted branches. Because of the thick air that becomes more and more tiring. Because of the mud that keeps slowing them down. The jungle is what they live, what they breathe, what they walk, what they talk and most importantly, what they fear. It’s all their emotions packed into a big, heavy bag. Now, they have to carry it. And that’s no easy task.

Not even for a soldier.

Not even the toughest bombing can destroy mother nature.
Not even the toughest bombing can destroy mother nature.