Fires

There’s a movie worth seeing that is out there somewhere right about now. Not all cinemas are playing it, but if you happen to stumble upon it, do not think twice and just see it. The movie I’m raving about, and one that I haven’t been able to take off my mind for the past few days is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. It’s a low budget production that aims for the stars by keeping things grounded and well focused, something today’s feature films are mostly not up to, because they want to tell everything, show everything and preach everything. Wildlife, based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same title, doesn’t do that. And here’s why it works.

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Welcome to the Brinson family.

A family is on the move. Finally, they find a home in Montana, in a small town where people know each other by name. It’s 1960 and our main characters are trying to find a footing in their new setting. The husband, Jerry, played by Gyllenhaal, is doing his best as a valet at a local golf course to make ends meet and perhaps offer his son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould) a brighter future. Jeanatte (Mulligan) stays at home and waits for Jerry to return from work. She cooks, helps out with the homework, keeps her fingers crossed for everything to go well on a daily basis. But just like in life, and in Ford’s writing, things don’t go as planned. Jerry gets fired because of how personal he is with the golf club members and everything is back to square one. The Brinsons now have to come up with something. And it better be something good. Days go by and Jerry is stuck. He’s hit rock bottom, he feels trapped and to make things worse, his wife goes out and first thing she does is find a well paid job as a swimming instructor. How does that make him look? Then there’s a rumor. Rumor around town is that there is a fire coming from the mountains, destroying everything that stands in its way, and that they’re looking for men to go up there and fight the fire. Pay’s mediocre but you get to skip town for a while and only come back when the first snowflakes begin to fall. Enough time to blow off steam and think things over. Jerry makes up his mind and leaves.

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A lost father figure.

Within the opening thirty minutes Wildlife is able to portray and entire family saga with the simple use of the mundane. Dano is not afraid to show our characters do things that can be considered uncinematic like grocery shopping, doing homework, eating supper, listening to the radio. The Brinsons are never presented like a happy family; they’re a real family, with problems that go beyond what’s on screen, with duties and chores that are not comparable to those of most film characters. Their lives revolve around the simple things; make it through the month, and go from there. So how does Wildlife talk about bigger things?

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A mother out to save the family.

For starters, as mentioned before, it keeps many elements hidden under the surface. Not everything needs to be said out loud. When Jeanatte starts to work regularly, leaving Jerry at home, their confrontations are quiet, almost non-existent, but there is tension and anger at every turn. Instead of, for example, staging a big fight scene between the couple, Dano fills that initial runtime with extremely quiet scenes, such as a particularly beautiful one, where Jerry goes out in the backyard, smoking a cigarette, and watches as the sunset sky glows bright red due to the distant, raging fires. What goes on out there, in the far distance, goes on inside Jerry and inside Jerry’s home, too. There’s a fire building inside the Brinsons’ home and there’s no one to put it out. Jerry tries to explain the situation to his 14-year-old son, ”I got this hum inside my head. I need to do something about it. Do you understand?” Dano and writing partner Zoe Kazan know that each character deserves a fair chance; Jerry is not a victim but he’s also not a threat, he’s simply misunderstood, and feels impotent in the face of responsibility as a father and husband, unable to break through and show what he’s truly worth. Once Jerry gets on the truck that will drive him to fight the fire in the mountains, we’re left with Jeanatte and Joe and their new way of life in a house that now feels a little bit more spacious.

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An intruder inside the house.

Mulligan plays Jeanatte beautifully, and builds upon what’s been laid out for her on paper. Jeanatte is also a big question mark for the viewer; she’s clearly better than her husband at adapting to various situations. She’s got skills other women in town could only dream of and yet her background is never explored other than a single mention of her time growing up on a ranch, being a cowboy girl. Her transformation that takes place in the second act of the film is something we rarely see on screen because of the difficulty of the situation her character is put in; Jeanatte begins to question her husband’s real motivation to go fight the fire, to the point that in an extremely moving sequence, she takes her son with her and goes on a day-long trip to the mountains, to where the firefighters are stationed. After they’ve passed the barracks, they move forward and Jeanatte pulls to the side of the road and tells Joe to get out of the car and have a look. The two of them stare at what seems to be a terrifying sight. She asks her son, ”Do you like it?”, to which the reply is ”No.” Jeanatte continues, ”You had to see what he finds so important. I’m sorry we both can’t sympathize with him.” So much is said in code that we can barely figure out what goes on in our characters’ minds. Joe stares at the terrifying sight (which turns out to be a landscape consumed by smoke and fire and dust) with tears welling up in his eyes. The entire scene plays out in a very inaccessible way for the viewer; there are no tips on how to interpret what our characters see and say.  As viewers, and similarly to readers of Ford’s novel, we have no say in our characters’ actions. We are only meant to witness the emotional turmoil unfold and that is where Dano, as a young director, steps in.

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It’s never easy.

Voiceover. That was the first thing that Dano decided to get rid of as the director of Wildlife. Characters had to live and breathe on their own without providing and receiving any feedback from the audience. Numerous times we see dramas that use voiceover as a tool to help spur the action forward and describe in detail what each character is thinking, what happened and why it happened. Yet Dano, a fine actor (you probably saw him in There Will Be Blood as Eli Sunday, or Little Miss Sunshine as the emotional teenager, or Prisoners, where he played the number one suspect) decides to take on the challenge of letting the camera do the work. Hence, so many quiet scenes where so little is said and yet so much happens. Dano works mostly with steady shots to encapsulate the small town feeling our characters are trapped in. The limited camera movements present each frame like a painting, a controlled space where nothing outside of the ordinary is bound to happen (as a fun exercise you might want to compare some of the scenes inside the house to similar scenes of arguments, discussions or simple exchanges in a few of Scorsese’s films, where anything can happen at anytime and the camera movement is dynamic and unpredictable, setting up an open playground for the characters). As the movie proceeds towards a brutal emotional development, Dano seems to make all the right choices, whether it is with his sparse use of close-ups in critical moments or his introduction of pop music to make certain scenes more vibrant, this is a directorial debut that deserves all the accolades. Through his vision we learn of a family that is falling apart but for individual reasons; be it Jerry’s pride, Joe’s difficult coming of age, or Jeanatte’s confusion and sudden realization that perhaps this was not the life she dreamed of. Few movies are able to tear a family apart, step by step, like Wildlife does, and the more interesting thing is its complete indifference when it comes to patching things up. This is not a feel good movie, this is a movie that deals with real situations in a very realistic way, letting the action unfold on its own, putting all its ingredients into one basket; the characters’ emotions. In other words, if you want drama, look no further, because Wildlife’s approach to this genre is quite riveting; it never goes overboard like Revolutionary Road, another period piece about emotional turmoil in a relationship, and it never falls flat like other recent family dramas such as last year’s The Wife (for which Glenn Close is generating Oscar buzz). Dano’s vehicle digs deeper than most because it never allows us to have a say, and it never makes it easy for us to directly and openly judge the characters on screen. This is a movie that is not afraid to confront the viewer with something he/she can’t quite decipher. And that, in today’s cinematic age is a blessing in disguise.

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What do you feel?
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The Earth I Pass

Today’s topic: looking for meaning. We all do it. We try to understand something that is too incomprehensible. We want to grasp the meaning when something is meaningless. We want to find answers when there are no questions. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) directed by Werner Herzog is precisely about that. It’s a wild, hellish tale of mankind destroying itself; a tale that creates a terrifying yet brutally true depiction of a mutilated world, populated by corrupt individuals and silent gods.

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Aguirre – the devil himself.

Herzog, at the time an unknown German director with little to no experience, has become the symbol of an adventurist director. Having directed real life epics like Fitzcarraldo, gritty dramas like Rescue Dawn, cop thrillers such as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and numerous documentaries that have paved the way for countless specialists in the field with fantastic works like Grizzly ManInto the Abyss,  Encounters at the End of the World, and Fata Morgana, Herzog has become a film philosopher rather than a film director. Critics and colleagues keep describing him as an ‘intense madman’. Interviewers keep underlining the fact that he always answers with the first thing that pops into his mind, but let’s be honest – the world needs men like Herzog. Not many people involved with the movie business have the guts to talk about things that others choose to ignore. Not many people have the courage to set themselves a challenge so incredibly tough and not walk out of it. That’s Herzog for you and his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is an achievement that will speak for ages to come.

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An endless journey.

The story of a ruthless Spanish conquistador, Don Aguirre, who takes over an expedition in Peru in order to find the legendary El Dorado, the city of gold, is a very modern take on our burning reality. Above all, it’s a brilliant character study of a man blinded by the thirst of power, a man that keeps spinning in circles trying to find his destination – the meaning. But in a place like the jungle, there is no meaning. Or maybe there is, but it’s hidden. It strikes you when you got your back to it. It digs its blade into your chest the moment you least expect it. Right from the opening shot – a long column advances across the mountains, fighting the hostile weather and nature – we get a sense of what it is all about; a Sisyphus struggle, an endless journey into the real heart of darkness. The men who lead the way for the rest of the column are the first ones to go. Herzog doesn’t focus on their probable deaths, but rather on their disappearance. His camera stays steady as a rock while we hear a slave yell out in pain, a soldier suffocate in a deadly trap, an officer get hit by an arrow. We hear what we want to hear, but we see what Herzog wants us to see. It’s a fantastic example of how cinema can manipulate our minds, our senses, forcing us to make our own vision, our own idea. At the beginning, Aguirre stands in the far corner of every frame; the devil watches over and waits. In fact, Aguirre waits until most men tied to the expedition either die of illness or are killed by invisible ‘savages’. I type ‘savages’ because we have to keep in mind, that this whole expedition has as its man goal to spread the word of God among the natives, be it with the help of the Bible or the simple use of a sword. A priest is our main narrator, a man who is as possessed by his own ambitions same as the mad Aguirre. A man who dresses in rags, but aims for riches just as much as the soldier standing next to him.

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The mad expedition.

Herzog with the help of his 35mm camera immerses us into the humid jungle. He lets us observe the faces of the conquistadors, giving us the possibility to judge on our own, make up our own interpretations. “That man is a head taller than me. That may change.” whispers Aguirre into the ear of his devoted servant. The chopped off head lands onto the ground; the lips still moving. The message is clear – there is no place for truth in a world where slaves still exist, where houses are burned, where wars are fought, where innocent people die in the name of the guilty ones. The remaining members of the expedition build a raft that will end up being our main setting. Day by day, the group on the raft becomes smaller, and smaller and smaller. Every now and then we hear an arrow zip by. Herzog evidently haunts us with repetitive hand-held shots of worn out, tired faces, dying animals, bloody weapons. The raft starts to break down, but surprisingly no one cares about it. Hunger is not felt anymore, thirst is only a dark memory, and blindness becomes these men’s religion. “We keep going in circles” says the priest and there is no God listening to him. Maybe he never wished for one to be there. Some men don’t want to be listened to.

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A nation of devils.

Aguirre, being the only one left standing, represents all the things a viewer wants him to represent. He has no boundaries, no agenda, no dreams, no nothing. He only wants to be as big as God really made him. He wants to have power over nature, over his fellow soldiers, over the entire world. He wants the earth to shake when he walks. He wants the birds to drop dead when says so. Will it happen? Is this what this reality of ours has been leading us to? Herzog remains silent.

The meaning is hidden, but someday… someday something will happen. And Aguirre will emerge from the depths of darkness.

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The real savages are hidden among us.

 

The Charming Cop

Today’s topic: LA Confidential, and more precisely the character of Jack Vincennes. The superb noir drama, Oscar winning picture that came out in 1997, gives me the chills every time I give it a watch. For those of you who are not familiar with the title I just mentioned, I’ll say this: find it and enjoy. What a ride it is to dive into the 1950’s Los Angeles and its world of corruption and greed; always a pleasure.

However, every time I give this film a shot and every time I try to grasp every second of this cinematic landmark, I focus nearly all of my attention on Jack Vincennes, the “showman” cop played superbly by the one and only, Kevin Spacey. Spacey was having the best years of his career, having already won an Oscar for “The Usual Suspects” in spring 1996, he was on a roll when the screenplay for LA Confidential got to him. Under the direction of Curtis Hanson (8 Mile), Spacey created a character so layered and so profoundly human (also based on Dean Martin, the iconic singer) that audiences and critics were stunned when the Academy passed on this role. His charm and wit take over the screen, I can tell you that.

Jack Vincennes is a good man. He is. However, he is also the wrong man at the right place. Why? Well, he dresses very elegantly, is handsome and knows how to handle hot situations. The world of show business attracts him not because of the pay or the glamour of the red carpet, but because he wants to feel right, he wants to put his foot down and let the world take notice of his input. What can a cop bring into a world where gangsters rule Hollywood, drugs keep getting into the poor neighbourhoods of LA and prostitutes try to look like movie stars? There is nothing out there that a simple policeman can do. He pulls out a badge and that’s it, file a report, then report back to your superior, go home and have a drink before heading off to bed. Does the Medal of Merit save you from this ugly world? No. You just need to know the right people and you need to know how to slip some money under the counter. That’s it. That’s when you profited in those days and still do now.

Vincennes is a man who’s always tried to pass above that. Sure, he’d snatch a little weed for himself, pay off the watchman and make a couple of headlines but he always did it while aiming higher. Higher than the grey skies of Los Angeles, ironically The City of Angels, “Where dreams come true, hush-hush”.  And since everyone needs a key to success, Jack has the “Badge of Honor” hit TV show; an opportunity to teach someone about how a cop really feels and acts when hurt, when happy, when drunk. Vincennes’ a mentor, a guru for aspiring actors and is also the ladies’ man at the parties.

At the end of the movie, when things go really bad, that’s when Jack forces himself to show the LA underworld his true colours, to prove to himself that he isn’t just about the money and fame. He goes and tries to make things right, and more specifically he tries to save a young man who he put into deep trouble for his own dirty $50 and a chance to get back at a pretentious superior. That’s when Jack realizes that he’s been battling these kind of situations his whole life. He’s been trying to get out his real self his whole damn, corrupt life and now he has the chance to make it right. And he does. He pays the bill.

That’s who Jack Vincennes is or at least who I think he is or represents. I think Jack Vincennes sleeps inside all of us and is waiting for us to wake him up, and that’ll happen when duty will call. Rest assured.

Hush-hush.

Trying to make things right always requires sacrifices.
Trying to make things right always requires sacrifices. Jack knows best.