The Man Who Lost

The Man Who Lost

Today’s topic: powerlessness in 2014’s Leviathan. Every once in a while, foreign cinema plays the role of a wake up call. It shakes the film industry to its core, reminding both the audience and the producers what movies should be about. When movies where born there was no place for Captain America, no understanding of the hot mess called The Avengers, no praise for mindless X-Men. Movies used to be about humanity, vulnerability and ambition. Stories were told to teach and inspire. And as this concept is unfortunately dying due to the supreme power of today’s blockbusters, every one in a while there is a sparkle of hope in the world of cinema. I recently found that sparkle in the Russian 2014 Oscar-nominated Leviathan. A story so compelling and striking in its theme and execution that it restores every bit of hope in cinema’s importance as a mentor and prophet in a world that desperately needs guidance.

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A dangerous landscape that swallows the weak.

Based directly on the Book of Job, Leviathan is set in rural coastal Russia, where snow and poverty are the bread and butter of its inhabitants, busy living off fishing and construction work. Kolya, the protagonist, has his land taken by the town’s evil mayor. As he tries to protect it, Kolya loses everything. Yes, it’s a downer of a movie. But oh, its beauty. We can smell the poverty, we can smell the rotten fish, and the equally rotten government. The town is buried in corruption and selfishness. Kolya wanting to fight for his beautiful home, calls his brother from Moscow, a well respected and even better connected lawyer who knows how to solve major cases. Not this time. You see, Leviathan isn’t a simple story that revolves around a plot. It’s an exploration of human weakness and the vulnerability when that weakness is crushed by a higher force. Kolya tries to overplay the forces that rule the town he lives in. He files a suit against the mayor, he loses. He files a suit claiming his land, he loses. He tries to stand up for his own rights, he loses. His son, Roma, can’t help but run off and join his hooligan friends, refusing to watch his father drink himself to death. Not even the incriminating files against the town’s mayor filed by Kolya’s brother can help. The big man behind the big desk has his ways of dealing with outbursts of insubordination; invite Kolya’s brother for a drive-around, force him into a black SUV take him to the foggy, cold countryside, tie his hands, give him a serious beating and threaten to shoot him. That’s the universal way, isn’t it?

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A once strong man, turns into a powerless animal.

Andrey Zvyagintsev crafts a painful portrait of the weak, masking Russia’s dictatorial truth with a biblical tale of loss and anger. Kolya, a skilled mechanic, a brave fisherman, a dominant man of the house is just a small insect on Russia’s map. On the world’s map. Zvyagintsev underlines this by shooting wide panoramic landscapes: see how insignificant your actions are? You’re just a poor old sob. You can’t afford a close-up. You’re nothing when compared to the big picture. The only help you can find is at the bottom of a bottle of Vodka. And indeed, that’s the only help Kolya is provided with. The love of his life vanishes, his son’s respect is gone, his brother’s determination to support him is shattered, his town’s connection broken off. What about God? Is God there? Is God capable of letting Kolya know that this is just a test? Zvyagintsev’s message is clear: in Russia God is everywhere, but he’s nowhere to be found. The church is there, the prayers are there, but where’s God’s mercy? God’s love? Innocent people are put behind bars. Innocent people are killed. Innocent people lose everything. The director places us always far from the action, making us look powerless and hopeless when the worst comes to life. When Kolya’s brother gets almost beaten to death we witness it from the backseat of a quiet SUV. When Kolya’s brother goes off to have an affair with Kolya’s wife, we’re left standing in the middle of nowhere with a limited view of what we can only imagine is happening. We witness as the priest in the final moments blesses the crowd of villagers, talking about the enormity of being unfaithful to God. God is merciful. God is there. But the priest can’t answer Kolya’s desperate drunk fueled question: “Where’s your fucking Lord when needed?”

The mayor is powerful, the mayor is supreme. The priest tells the mayor “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.”  And so the mayor does not fear, he acts, and his actions are the only powerful actions taking place in this miserable coastal town. His actions are the actions of a nation gone bad, of a world gone rogue.

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All the answers are not there anymore.
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Evildoer

Evildoer

Today’s topic: spirituality in Abel Ferrara’s  Bad Lieutenant. If you think about it in the last twenty years the cinema industry must have spit out at least two dozen films dedicated to either the life and death of Jesus,  the life and death of Moses, or the life and death of Noah. In other words, religiosity has always been a subject that’s been tackled countless times since the early beginnings of cinema. The first big “blockbuster” movies of the 1920s were in fact, movies that told the different stories hidden in the Bible, with directors like Cecil B. DeMille attached to star and direct and attract thousands of viewers. These tales of good and righteousness were meant to teach and inspire, lead the way toward the right path. Nowadays religious films seem to be made for the simple reason to make lots of money (Exodus: Gods and Kings, I’m looking at you) and experiment with new technology. Once it was all about passion and love (Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, a project he envisioned for almost 25 years), and people went to see these movies to appreciate the message and the art behind it. Now, in 1992 a small independent movie came out from one of the few controversial figures in today’s cinema still well and kicking. Abel Ferrara studied spirituality by creating one of the most intoxicating and sick characters of all time: Bad Lieutenant.

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He’ll do anything just to keep his name alive.

It’s a great start. Confronting religion with madness, because that’s what LT (he has no name) represents: pure madness. As a man with a police badge he can do whatever he damn wants to do, be it: shoot up a grocery store, steal a bag of coke off a crime scene, gamble his own life, smoke crack on a stairway, jack off in front of two girls in the middle of a street. You name it, he’s done it. Played by a never-better Harvey Keitel, LT is a towering figure amongst New York’s criminals, and yet he feels small like a worm. His existence meaningless like the few girls he bangs every night. His life wasted like the few grams of white powder he snorts every morning to keep his flow going. Yes, he’s evil, dirty, corrupt, a sad junkie, but somehow he raises his eyes when he walks into a church where a nun has been brutally raped. A crime so violent, so perverse could only take place in a sacred temple that is the church. Nothing’s been stolen, just a few shattered glasses, a torn curtain and graffiti sprayed all over the murals. Ferrara’s imagery hits like a punch to the jaw: not even a sacred place can be considered sacred in a non-sacred world. You just have to be like LT to survive.

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Stoned crucifixion.

LT likes to get stoned; that’s his only escape from New York’s underbelly, the sewage that floats around him, the demons that try to take over his sick mind. From a group sex scene, Ferrara cuts to a naked LT, walking around the room, coked out of his mind, his eyes closed, whimpering to himself with his arms raised like Jesus on the crucifix. Is he trying to beg for forgiveness? In some way, yes he does, but he’s not yet capable of phrasing his thoughts and let the Lord know that deep down he’s a sorry little child. Instead, he sobers up, puts on a fresh pair of clothes and goes driving in the night. On his way home, he stops two girls driving without a license with their father’s borrowed car. LT after a long discussion with the two sisters that happen to be a little high too, decides to let them go only if one of them lifts up her skirt and the other looks at him while he masturbates. Sure, controversy at its finest. Instead of looking at this perverted scene someone would simply glance at, let’s try to connect it with the overall theme of spirituality. LT believes there is a God, but since God’s been absent on the New York streets at night, letting innocent people die, then why should he pay attention to a cop jerking off in front of two beautiful girls? That’s the point of the situation. Fear and rush. LT does it quickly because in all honesty, he’s scared. Scared of being caught by the higher authority. Scared of slowing down.  His whole life has been an endless rush, so why stop now? Such pleasures are to be savored quickly.

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“I try to do the right thing but I’m too fucking weak.”

After a gambling bet goes wrong, LT knows he must get ready for what’s awaiting him. He remembers  the nun. Yes. With a swig of rum and two lines of coke in his system, he drives up to the church and finds the same nun down on her knees, praying. Ferrara with the use of a simple handheld camera (like most of the film shot in 18 days on a very low budget) manages to frame the image of the bad cop and the nun on their knees one to close to another like a sacred painting. Is it possible that a man who’s been corrupt his whole life can even touch a “clean” nun? Can a man like LT kneel down and look up at the crucified Jesus? Can he? LT turns to the nun and asks her where he can find the rapists which for sure he’s going to kill. To his surprise the nun says “I forgive them.” ” You forgive them?! Those guys put out cigarette butts on your–” The woman means it. She looks into his eyes and sees a man who wants to do good for the first time in his life. A man who’s looking for one last chance. It’s not about gambling anymore. Not about drugs either. It’s about living the right life for just a single moment.

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Forgiveness? What is it?

The cop hallucinates, and as the nun leaves him on his knees, like the miserable animal he is, Jesus himself appears in front of him. He stands there, silent. Ferrara writes this scene beautifully; every viewer can relate to LT’s anger, anger that leads to his yelling out in tears: “Where the fuck were you?! I’m sorry, Lord. I’ve done so many bad things.” It may sound simple but it’s bigger than life. The word resonate inside the dimly lit church and Jesus doesn’t make a sound, letting the cop tumble onto the floor, punching himself and crying.

And with a scene like that, Ferrara makes a religious movie out of a perverted crime story, presenting us with a character that is not worth anything anymore. He never was.

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“Say something, I know you’re just standing there. What am I gonna do? You gotta say something! “

Black Mess

Black Mess

Today’s topic: what went wrong with this year’s Johnny Depp gangster drama, Black Mass. I’ve been thinking about tackling the subject of a wasted movie’s potential for a long time, sniffing around the negativity, trying to think of a nice way of putting all my thoughts into one single post. I waited for the right movie, a movie so fresh that people are still paying for the theater tickets. I got it. No other film has left me this disappointed this year. I’m talking about the highly anticipated, rumored as Johnny Depp’s comeback, the still-hot Scott Cooper vehicle, Black Mass. 

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Meet James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Get used to this face.

It’s a terrible feeling when you wait, and you wait some more, thinking to yourself that what you’re about to see is something special, and then after all the waiting, you are punched in the nose for your high hopes. Thousands, even millions saw the first trailer for this movie and their jaws dropped at the sight of the ice cold, make-up covered, brutally tough Johnny Depp as real life Boston crime lord, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Having read a lot about this intriguing ex- FBI most wanted list gangster, who in 2011 was finally caught in a parking lot in Santa Monica, California, after 16 years at large, made me thirsty for a movie adaptation. And it happened. But something went wrong. Something prevented this movie from being good. Not even great, but at least good. Not in this case. For wasting a highly interesting topic just look up this movie and you’ll see and know why. Scott Cooper has always had the wrong eye in directing his movies. In Crazy Heart (the performance that got Jeff Bridges the highly deserved Oscar) he sat back and let the music flow through the movie’s veins, losing control of what he was creating and making it a tiring almost two-hour watch. In the 2013 mediocre Out of the Furnace Cooper wasted an A-list cast to create, with his blessing, a lousy dark version of the American rural steelworker towns. And here again, Cooper’s direction looking almost intimidated by gangster epics like the darker Godfather series and the lighter-rocking Goodfellas, fails at delivering what could have been the tastiest dish of all year.

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Biblical? Nah.

Violence. We love it. On screen it looks great. The bloodier, the merrier. The more violent character deaths, the more excited the viewer gets. Well, if there is something like repetitive, exhaustive, meaningless violence this film has it. Whatever the problem is (and there is a few) Whitey kills. Yes, the feared gangster was a feared murderer but he didn’t spend every single day shooting up possible ‘snitches’, strangling prostitutes, executing friends who got too drunk for his tastes (why even?) and beating strangers to a pulp leaving them in the middle of nowhere. No matter what happens, Bulger stands his ground by commiting violent crimes. And I have no doubt that it was really the case as he got charged with (at least) 19 murder cases, but there sure must have been more to him than that. Cooper and the writers seem to be fascinated by the cruel nature of Bulger, this way ignoring what could have been a different side to him. Yes, he was a loving father who lost his little son when the boy was six years old, but do we witness enough of that fatherly love? What we get is a scene where Bulger explains to the boy basically how to get away with a crime, and then a few scenes during which the mobster sits at the hospital and yells “fuck, fuck, fuck” at the news of his son’s death, insults his wife, threatens her and kicks a chair down. Is that all? Is that everything they have on him?

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Bang, bang and the movie’s over.

It feels poor. And it’s a shame because James ‘Whitey’ Bulger has been the second most wanted person on the face of the earth right after Osama Bin Laden for almost twenty years. The world is full of books, scripts, recordings, photographs that provide us a detailed description of this man’s character and the way he saw and walked the earth. And yet, in Black Mass it feels as if we’re watching a Wikipedia page, with the highlighted murders he committed and the way he stared at certain people. That’s why there is basically no plot: the writers feel intimidated by this towering figure of a born criminal and to spice things up, begin to concentrate more on Bulger’s FBI contact (since he was a federal informant, yes), John Connolly. Connolly is the lost sense of humanity and emotion that is squashed into the narrative to somehow try and carry the movie. As good as Joel Edgerton is, you can’t sell a convincing Boston accent when you’re Australian (and neither can you when you’re British, like Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Whitey’s brother). After some time, we realize we’re focusing more on Connolly than on the so-called protagonist. That’s because Johnny Deep comes on screen only to make a slight grin, look at the camera with his fake blue eyes and get dirty. It’s difficult and painful not to make a review out of this, because we got all the right ingredients.

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And the FBI sequences keep on dragging…

Let’s compare styles: Scorsese in Goodfellas introduces mobster Henry Hill by having some fun at it, by pushing in with the camera and adding some fast paced editing and Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches, this way already telling us the kind of person Henry is: unpredictable, childish, fun, dangerous and a dreamer. What does Cooper do? He takes it slow, almost as if he was shooting a documentary. He presents us with a brooding cinematography that captures a dimly lit bar where Bulger sits and listens. Nothing wrong with a conversation but when for over forty seconds we get nothing more than “Hey, Sammy. Fuck you.” – “No, fuck you.” – “Ah, shut the fuck up.” – “What the fuck?” – “Yeah, fuck you.” It’s fine we get it, we’re in Boston’s underworld but don’t overwork it. Bulger is the one (as always) that keeps quiet and watches a man eat peanuts. He’s evidently disgusted and makes a (again, vulgar) remark to the man eating peanuts that he shouldn’t eat peanuts with his fat hands because if he eats those peanuts with his “fat fucking hands” he’s going  to put all his germs into the bowl of fucking peanuts. What do we learn from this? Better yet, who are we even watching? A man who likes to pick on the details? No, later on there is no underlining of that. No highlight. No flashback. Nothing. We’re watching what is supposed to be understood as: a monster.

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As scary as Bulger is, he’s also boring.

Bulger does sit-ups, dresses in black, likes steaks and… what? That’s it you ask? Yes, that’s it. It’s all we get from the movie. Remember how in Goodfellas I talked about how great and yet twisted was the fact that the viewer grows fond of the gang, the family to which Henry Hill belongs to? In Black Mass we’re introduced to characters, middle men, dirty-hand workers who make no difference, they have no spirit, no personality. One minute they appear, the second they vanish. We wait for something tasty to bite on and well, we’re left feeling hungry and we stay that way until the very last credit rolls.

What The Departed managed to achieve in telling the story of South Boston’s mob by being a simple loose adaptation of a Hong Kong movie set in the US, is far superior than what we get from a movie that was supposed to tell us the story of the most notorious gangster in US history. And even Depp, as terrifying as he is, there is nothing natural about his performance, an iceberg of a character that is too primitive to watch. Wasted material. It’s a disappointing topic in the world of cinema, and a painful experience for every film buff around the globe.

Not even the Titanic could crash this iceberg.

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You guessed it: another execution…