Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: A Tribute to Life

If I told you that Quentin Tarantino, the master of dialogue, on-screen violence and epic cinematic twists had made a movie that celebrates life over death, would you believe me? After all, death has always been Tarantino’s omnipresent fixation. Death, be it in the form of revenge (Kill BillDjango Unchained) or a mere accident, product of unfortunate circumstances (Pulp Fiction’s ”I shot Marvin in the face!”, Inglourious Basterds’ bar scene) has always played a prominent role in Tarantino’s filmography. His stories usually begin and end in death. A vicious cycle that has bugged me as a viewer numerous times as I always wished that he’d eventually choose a different path.
Tarantino, despite loving his characters and treating them like his own children, has been known for being ruthless to them. It’s why we watch his movies. Because we love that thrill of uncertainty of who’s up next on the chopping block.
And that’s why his latest film was a pleasant and much needed departure from that particular element of Quentin’s vision. And perhaps that is also why Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is arguably Tarantino’s best film in years. For the first time we see the provocative writer-director steer clear of most of the tropes seen in his latter films and go into fairly unfamiliar territory. What follows is a very poetic depiction of a time and place that most of us had forgot all about, or better yet, had never entered before.

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Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Critics have labelled Once Upon a Time as ”Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood” which is undoubtedly a right conclusion, but as I came home from the movie I found myself thinking more and more about what the main subject matter of the movie really is. In order to find the answer I was looking for I thought about the key to any Tarantino film: the characters that inhabit the world.
The first thing that popped into my head was the sequence where Sharon Tate (played by an excellent Margot Robbie), the symbol of a new wave in Hollywood of youth, controversies and thought-provoking attitude in the face of different current affairs including the Vietnam War, America’s grueling fight against Communism and the hippie revolution, sneaks into a theater to watch her own performance in The Wrecking Crew (1969). The young starlet sits in the front row overwhelmed by the sight of her own face up on the big screen, smiling at the sound of the audience’s reactions. It is in that sequence that Tarantino serves us the film’s theme on a silver platter: life. Here is Sharon Tate, actress, activist, model and wife to Roman Polanski, whose name has become synonymous with the Charles Manson murders. Most of us know the name due to the tragic circumstances of her premature death at the hands of a group of fanatics, sensationalized in countless documentaries and reports over the years, subject to speculations and needless conspiracy theories. Sharon Tate is synonymous with death then, in its cruelest, senseless and most terrifying form. Yet we see her live and breathe. We see her sit in a theater and giggle like a little school girl at the sound of the audience’s clapping. We see Tate herself behave like a regular audience member, laughing at her own character’s shenanigans and clapping in excitement as the screening comes to an end.

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Margot Robbie as the 60s icon, Sharon Tate.

Because as much as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is about the dynamic duo of DiCaprio and Pitt; DiCaprio’s struggling actor named Rick Dalton desperately trying to maintain his career afloat and his stuntman (Pitt) carelessly roaming the streets of LA in search of new work opportunities; the film is just as much about paying tribute to the life of a woman whose legacy is centered around her death and the rather despicable coverage of it in the media spanning half a century.
Tarantino is thus setting the record straight, reminding us that despite life being potentially more difficult than death, what we do in life and how we live it should echo above the way we leave this world. There was more to Sharon Tate than just her gruesome murder: she was soulful, she had dreams like anyone of us, she had loves and like us, she made mistakes and lived with them. Charles Bukowski once wrote, ”You can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life,” and that is the case for Sharon’s portrayal in Tarantino’s latest.
Going into more detail would spoil the fun of the movie and would certainly go against everything that Tarantino has preached over the years. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be seen just to remind ourselves how beautiful life can be and how sometimes blissful it is to not know what is waiting around the corner.

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Let’s celebrate Sharon’s life, says Tarantino.

Once Upon a Time in Quentinland…

As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.

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The blaxploitation icon herself, Pam Grier, playing Jackie.

First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.

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Hanging out with Louis and Ordell.

Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.

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De Niro having the time of his life.

Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.

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Jackie is smart and practical.

James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.

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Jackie will not back down.

Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie,  Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.

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Even a regular cup of coffee tastes exquisite in a Tarantino movie.

Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.

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”Is it this aisle, Louis? Louisss?”

To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.

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And women’s feet, obviously.

Show Me a Leader

Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?

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Martin Scorsese’s movie that rediscovered satire was funny, accurate and thought-provoking.

Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.

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The all-powerful Dick Cheney staring right at you.

When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.

First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails.  McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?

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Young Cheney’s road to political glory could not have been duller.

Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.

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Beria whispering sweet nothings into the dead leader’s ear.

Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.

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The hilarious Central Committee of power-hungry idiots.

What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème.
And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year? 

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Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush Jr. reduced to cartoonish proportions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.

While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.

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Laugh in the face of evil.

 

What’s Going On?

It is no secret that the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the greatest living directors. There is a reason for that. The Coens are ambitious and even though most of their films deal with nihilism (The Big Lebowski), impotence (Barton Fink), doomsday (No Country for Old Men) and failure (Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coens are filmmakers that try to grasp the enormity of life and the numerous trials and tribulations that come with it. Their secret lies in their ability at poking fun at everything and everybody and getting away with it. Why? Because they know there are no absolute answers. Everything is a farce. A beautiful one. Sure, in Burn After Reading the two wrote and directed a story about conspiracy, secret service, treason to showcase the insanity and the stupidity of those who are convinced of outsmarting other people. That was back in 2008, right after the economic crisis revealed holes and leakage not only in the US system, but worldwide as well. Then, a year later, the two brothers came out with one of their darker, perhaps their most underrated movie to date: A Serious Man. A totally different beast but one that might have been aimed at pointing fingers at those who always want to know one single thing: WHAT’S GOING ON?

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Larry desperately trying to modify life.

It is 1967. A suburb in the state of Minnesota. Enter Larry Gopnik: middle-aged physics professor, husband and father of two, a boy and a girl. Larry’s Jewish like the Coens, and like the Coens in their teenage years, his son is getting ready to become a man by going through a Bar Mitzvah. This involves hours of learning long religious chants in Hebrew. What Larry’s son is going through is exactly what Larry is going through himself. Confusion. An omnipresent state of confusion. However, unlike Larry, his son accepts this state of confusion: he embraces it by memorizing the sound of the words spoken by the rabbi, rather than understanding them. He spends most of his time listening to rock music instead of paying attention to what the teachers teach him in Hebrew school. Smoking weed and gazing at the glaring TV set becomes his habit: a simple way of refusing to understand and oversee the bigger picture, because why should a 13 year old boy worry about so many meaningless things?

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Manipulated by everything and everyone.

Larry, on the other hand, is a man who believes in numbers, who believes in logic and concrete evidence. He believes in Yes or No. Good or Bad. Cold or Hot. That’s it. In a time of such great social change with the Vietnam War in the distant background, cheap sci-fi shows on TV and the power of rock and roll, Larry is incapable of coping with this new reality. Each day he goes through the same routine. Each day he starts from scratch. But then, one day, Hasham strikes upon him with a series of odd and troubling events. His wife decides to leave him for his friend, a snobbish Jew by the name of Sy Ableman. Larry’s ominous neighbor starts building a shed  by crossing Larry’s property line. Then, his tenure application is threatened because of hate mail directed at Larry from an anonymous sender. Finally, a Korean student asks him to grant him a passing grade in Mathematics and leaves a bribe on his desk. When Larry tries to confront him about it, the father of the student shows up to his house and threatens to sue him. Larry looks at the man, helpless, and asks if the money on his desk was left by his son or not. The student’s father answers: ”Please. Accept the mystery.”

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Larry likes numbers.

The mystery. The mystery of what? Larry cannot figure this out. And the Coens keep pushing him into a corner. First by putting him in a car accident, then by killing off his wife’s lover and making him pay for the funeral arrangements, finally by having his brother get into trouble with the law and having him pay for his brother’s lawyer. In other words, everything is going wrong for Larry. But the Coens make it clear enough: it’s Larry’s fault. This poor, clueless sob is bringing all of this on himself. By doing what? By not accepting the mystery. In fact, the only man who Larry can relate to is his own brother, Arthur, a loner who lives at Larry’s place and keeps his own notebook, filled with mathematical schemes and formulas that are meant to solve the ”probability map of the universe.” Arthur’s quest to solve the world has driven him to insanity and physical sickness, and yet, Larry does not realize it. He is too caught up in his own quest, his own personal reasons.

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Obsession through a close-up.

Larry’s visit to the three local rabbis ends with nothing but disappointment. The first rabbi, the junior one named Scott, is not experienced enough to actually give him a reasonable answer. What he does instead is feed Larry with the same worn-out speech about changing perspectives, starting from scratch and as he puts it toward the end: ”You have to see things as expressions of God’s will. […] Just look at the parking lot, Larry.” The young rabbi, unable to really transmit any kind of profound knowledge, relies on precisely what Larry hates about the world – blind belief in something that may or may not be there. These words deepen the cut in Larry’s mind. To a man like Larry, a teacher, a mathematician, what is perspective? Why should perspective change? That is why he goes to see the second rabbi, Nachtner, the more experienced one who is also responsible for organizing Larry’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. This rabbi, as experienced as he is, believes in the power of the parable. The parable he tells Larry is about a dentist who finds himself questioning God’s message engraved on the inside of one of his patient’s teeth. Unfortunately, this parable leads nowhere, and makes Larry even more frustrated. He stands and says: ”It sounds like you don’t know anything!”  Finally, the wisest of all rabbis, Marshak, does not even grant Larry a meeting. He shuts himself in his office, like God shutting the gates to his property, and leaves Larry with nothing but a sour taste in his mouth; a taste so vile and putrid that only the magic vision of Larry’s beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Shamsky, will be able to pull away for a short while.
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As he enters Mrs. Shamsky’s place, Larry can be considered a simple mortal, finally, a serious man with a serious man’s desire to make love, to cheat and indulge in physical pleasures. The beautiful neighbor offers him marijuana and the two get high together just like Larry’s son with his friends. For a brief moment, Larry is a serious man. Perhaps, that’s all he ever wanted. But the moment does not last long. Once reality hits Larry in the head, he’s gone for good. There are cops knocking on his door, religious ceremonies waiting for his attendance, family matters that are to be taken care of, his tenure that is at risk because of rude anonymous letters, and last but not least, his ultimate quest that needs answers at all costs.

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Mrs. Shamsky, a vision or a reality?

What the Coen brothers are able to create in this movie is a sense of feverish obsession; a kind of obsession that gnaws at every aspect of our lives. This obsession takes different forms in Larry’s life: his creepy neighbor, Sy and his snobbish attitude, the rabbis, his brother’s sickness, the student’s father, the tenure committee, you name it. Through careful direction and beautiful cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins that consists of mostly close-ups and medium shots, the Coens put the audience in Larry’s shoes. Whatever Larry feels, be it a crumbling physical pain or another terrible disappointment, the audience feels it too. As viewers, we are forced to witness a man struggle to find answers to questions that obviously do matter, but perhaps do not need answering. And through their brilliant writing, the brotherly duo play with language and the inability to communicate even in such a tight knit community as the Jewish one presented in this film. The language of Hebrew, the language of the chosen people, instead of being presented as a helpful way of bonding between community members is presented as a barrier that blocks any sort of outside perspective. The world in A Serious Man is so closed, shut-off and isolated from the rest, that its characters are naturally prevented from questioning the larger aspect of life. The minimalistic stylization used by the filmmakers serves one single purpose: to make Larry feel alone. Alone with the questions.

Alone with the mystery.

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Alone with the mystery.

 

The Big Chill

The title of this post is the title of the film I want to write a few words about. Why come up with a better post title if this one is so damn cool? The Big Chill is a movie made in 1983. Yeah, it’s a long time ago. Deal with it because this movie is something really special. It takes the viewer back to a time and place where relationships are real. Where everyone feels something. Where being together, as a unit, is the most important thing in the world. It is a film about life and second chances with the suicide death of a close friend as the main running theme of the movie.

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Look closer and you’ll see something more than just a dramedy.

The 80s were real, man. You can feel it. You can see it. Yes, this movie has it all. Stylish running shoes, weird dresses, tight shorts, multiple wigs, boots, sweaters, thick glasses. It’s a real throwback. We follow a group of old friends from college come together after the funeral of an old friend who died by his own hand. These guys, the main characters, they’re real. They are the real deal. Each one of them tries to escape the thought of expressing feelings regarding the death of Alex, the friend from college. They are clearly afraid of death, and maybe a bit selfish and self involved as well. That’s why they have each other, for support. They go way back and Lawrence Kasdan, writer and director, and his phenomenal cast know how to deliver this sense of familiarity and authentic friendship. Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, William Hurt. These are only some of the big names of this beautiful group of actors, who are in complete control of this story. You see, some movies are meant to be visual, and others are character driven. This one is the latter. Sometimes it’s not even about words but rather the looks these people give each other, the movements, the laughs they share. The past is the main actor. We don’t need to know anything. We only know that these friends have been there for each other for years. Some have grown up, others haven’t. Some have had terrible relationships, others have their loved ones right in their arms. It’s life. And it hits you right from the start.

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Friends from way back.
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Tight shorts on a cold Monday morning.

A friend dies but life goes on. Death can spark another life. It can stimulate someone to catch another breath. It can make someone stronger. In this case, Alex’s death helps the remaining characters reflect on their own decisions, their own past and their own future. Start a family. Own a club. Write a book. Get married. Lay off the drugs. All of these characters have their own weaknesses, and their friend’s suicide helps mend and heal all the wounds they’ve suffered since the college days. Embrace death and look for the light. Kasdan writes honestly and directs it with a slight sense of melodrama. His protagonists don’t act as individuals but rather as a group. They reinforce each other and make each other better. That’s what friends are for.

That’s what The Big Chill does. It gives you strength and makes you believe in the power of movies.

”I haven’t met that many happy people in my life. How do they act?”

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Who says you can’t be friends without sex?

Ice Cream

Today’s topic: Jim Jarmusch and his slow reality. When you think about ‘cool’, what comes to mind? For me, Jim Jarmusch. The grey haired sixty year old director, who enjoys smoking cigarettes, wearing sunglasses and making movies about people and their place in the world. This is a man who doesn’t rush; he takes his time, for each film he chooses the location carefully. His movies may not be the most aesthetically beautiful since all of them run on a tight budget (he hates studios and releases everything independently), his plots may not be the most dynamic and surprising ones, but there is something about his movies; something that elevates them from being simple short stories. It’s his take on the passing of each day, of the earth spinning, of the sun setting. In his movies everything starts and everything ends. Jarmusch goes from point A to point B in order to finally come to point C and it’s all planned out too – it’s his method of observation that strikes us. His patience. That’s it.

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The man of cool.

In his acclaimed second feature that put him on the map of independent film directors and made of him a walking paradox, Stranger Than Paradise from 1984, Jarmusch ties three people together and by the end of the movie, he cuts those ties leaving them separated, going different ways. The movie consists of slow fade-ins and fade-outs. Everything is quiet, peaceful, slow,  aside from the repeated Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track – I Put a Spell on You – everything follows a certain rhythm. It’s a study of a quiet society, connected but at the same time more than disconnected. The characters are genuine assholes, loners and punks who drive around in search of something. This theme of the search of nothing (really) establishes who Jarmusch is as a director – more of a poet, a bird watcher who quietly sits in the bushes with his binoculars on, studying. For some it could be a painful, boring experience, and for others it may just be what they’ve been looking for all the time. That quiet roaming around, the slow laziness, the stressful silences.

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Driving around.

Same thing happens in the next movie that won Jarmusch huge praise in the Cannes Festival, Down By Law from 1986. It’s a movie about innocence, escape, trouble and inner struggle. The story focuses on three prisoners in a New Orleans jail, who after being framed for crimes they did not commit (aside from the Italian prisoner), they escape into the Louisiana countryside. The three are – a pimp (John Lurie), a radio disk jockey (Tom Waits) and an Italian tourist (Roberto Begnini). This odd group of bozos are again, in search of something. They don’t know what it is. Jarmusch captures their anxiety, insecurity and anger by letting the actors improvise; what could have been a scripted piece of work turns into a quiet game of improvisation, lead by the skilled Begnini who makes the most out of his character. And that’s the point; Jarmusch dishes out these characters that seem on the outside to be empty, boring and silly but something carries them, something motivates them to move forward, not to give up. And right when we’re about to feel comfortable around these three, Jarmusch wraps up the whole thing; the three idiots go different ways. The tone of Down By Law is off-beat, a little unsettling, but isn’t that what makes life so fun? That’s Jarmusch for you.

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Hopeless bozos.

After making the dizzy and sentimental Mystery Train in 1989, Jarmusch went back to subtle observation by directing Night on Earth (1991). For most people the idea of this particular project, that of following five taxi drivers in five different cities all over the world during the same night, may seem more than boring. What could happen? After all it’s simply a camera placed on the windshield and actors sitting and talking. Well, again with Jarmusch you never know. At first it looks like a school movie project, but then, the stories, the acting, the atmosphere all make it so much more. Here, the director studies people’s different behavior, backgrounds and attitude, connecting all five stories, painting a larger than life picture of humanity. We see acts of anger, happiness, betrayal, empathy and grief. Jarmusch makes us laugh until we cry. He presents us a society of beautifully ugly and disgustingly beautiful people sitting behind the steering wheel of a taxi.

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Roberto Begnini in the ‘Rome’ segment of Night on Earth.

In one of his most mature directing efforts, Dead Man starring a young Johnny Depp, Jarmusch challenges the Wild West. Don’t think of it as a guns blazing movie with tons of blood and action. Jarmusch, as I said, is a poet and here he pays tribute to such poetic directors like Tarkovsky, Ozu and  Kaurismäki who prefer slow passing of time rather than fast paced action. It’s a psychedelic Western, twisted and surreal in every possible way, depicting man and nature as one single unit. It’s a postmodern take on the wilderness, on the savage land where men would square things off with the help of a duel. Everything ends in blood. Jarmusch knows it. We drift along William Blake, Johnny Depp’s character. He’s an accountant, a bizarre young man who’s always being stared at by others. He’s always picked on and laughed at. But is that his true self? His true nature? His true spirit? The camera pans slowly, as Blake, wounded, sits in a canoe drifting further away from land.

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Poetic Criminal

In my favorite movie of his, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch explores the gangster genre by creating a philosophical tale about the world of paradox. Who better than Jarmusch, right? It’s a study of the dirty streets of America, of the beautiful people we find, of the dangers we face every time we cross the street, of the stupid things we should never dare to think about. Ghost Dog, played by a great Forest Whitaker, is a paid assassin, a hitman working for the mafia. A black man raised in the streets of New Jersey. He kills for money but lives by a code. Everything follows a certain path, even a murderer. He’s a quiet, docile man, who like Jarmusch, observes others. The world that surrounds him defines him. A samurai. RZA’s soundtrack, Wu Tang’s gangster rap makes it even more poetic, more bizarre and strange. Everything seems like falling out of its assigned place and yet… everything is perfect.

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The art of humanity. The assassin.

And finally, Broken Flowers from 2005 is an exploration of love and loneliness. Bill Murray embarking on a cross-country journey to track down four of his former lovers after receiving an anonymous letter stating that he has a son. It is what it is. Jarmusch shapes a character so lonely, scarred by hypocrisy and grief that it seems as if we’re watching a documentary. Don Juan is looking for answers but he’s the last individual who would ever get them. Everything is hopeless, everything is broken. Nothing goes together. Don Juan roams around in his car, again, in search of what? Is he really looking for his son? Or is he really just trying to find a definition of himself?

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Who am I?

Jarmusch is a quiet dog. An artist who always goes under the radar. There is no publicity for his movies. His trailers go unnoticed. His soundtracks make a couple of bucks and that’s it. But he doesn’t care. All his movies are arguments about who we are and the place we find ourselves in. Everything is slow. Because slow is beautiful.

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Coffee and Jarmusch.

 

A Bucket of Sorrow

Today’s topic: the death of the American Dream in O Brother Where Art Thou. There have been countless movies dedicated to the glorious understanding of the term “American Dream”, movies that won plenty of Oscars such as the legendary tale of a simple man who turns into an all star boxing champ in Rocky or even the story of greedy Wall Street businessmen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The audiences clearly from the very beginning wanted to envision something so distant, so unreachable for the most part of the public: rise from nothing and either win everything or end up in the gutter. This concept was already born back in the early 1950s: the age of making business, living in suburbs, driving your own car, having  preferably a four member family and breathing fresh air. So why isn’t Hollywood interested in showing that this “dream” is for the most part a simple illusion created by day-to-day advertisement, dirty politics and irrational thinking? Well, because Hollywood used to and still does up to this day produce what the public wants to see and believe. That’s why it takes a duo of brothers to abolish the idea that everyone loves. I’m talking about the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan.

Three criminals on their way to stardom.
Three criminals on their way to stardom.

The brothers from Minnesota are part of the last generation of writer-directors independent from the Hollywood way of filmmaking; they have their own style, their own set of rules and ideas, their own language and tone and something that is extremely rare in today’s movies – originality. Their voices resonate in a world where everything must obey someone or something. With the Coens the viewer never really knows what he’s about to watch – be it the story of a husband who plans to kidnap his wife for ransom money in Fargo or the story of a pacifist stoner who investigates the disappearance of a millionaire’s wife in The Big Lebowski, the two writer-directors have never stayed on the same track. The same thing happens when we watch O Brother Where Art Thou, the tale of three prisoners trying to find their way to a hidden treasure in 1930s Mississippi. In this 2003 Oscar nominated picture, we’re given all the realities of the American South, and not only. The brothers intend to present us the main problems revolving around race, money, corruption, the musical scene and human intellect that are still relevant up to this day and age on a worldwide scale.

Chances come and go.
Chances come and go.

Labeled as a comedy, the film starts off with the sound of hammers beating on rocks, the voices of black prisoners chanting; we open up to a chain-gang. Hundreds of prisoners slamming their hammers against the dusty ground, guarded by armed deputies, under the heavy sunlight, dressed in plain striped uniforms, singing. The sepia cinematography by  master Roger Deakins is used here to make us reflect on the whole situation right from the opening: prisoners, guards, in colour they’re all the same, it’s the politics that divide them. One holds a sledgehammer, the other a loaded rifle.

The contradictions.
The contradictions.

When the three protagonists – Everett, Delmar and Pete – escape the chain-gang and manage to find shelter at Pete’s cousin’s house we’re presented with another problem; poverty. The three feast on a tasty dinner made of delicious horse stew – only problem is Pete’s cousin couldn’t afford anything else than the corpse of his rotting dead horse. And when the law enforcement comes looking for the three ex-cons, Pete’s cousin rats them out. Poverty, in a world where only the supreme and powerful have a say, leads to betrayal. Anything for money, for a hot plate, a cup of coffee, anything. Even your own cousin’s life. But that’s not the end of it. The boys, after successfully escaping a wave of other mishappenings, stumble into Baby Face Nelson (one of the most ruthless gangsters of the 30s America). They witness  the madman driving a fast running car, shooting whatever his eyes catch – be it police cars or cows. And yet, when the day comes to an end, and the four men find themselves around a bonfire, resting, Baby Face Nelson melts down; from a murderous criminal he turns into a frightened child. And like that, he says goodbye to the gang and walks away, looking down, almost crying. The Coens write their characters with the highest number of contradictions they can come up with, and yet they still manage to leave these characters with a sense of humanity, and make them as realistic as possible; because they know, unlike most directors and screenwriters today, that people are not one dimensional. Even a feared gangster can still be a man deep down his soul, since there is no such thing as a lost cause in the Coens’ book, anything’s possible.

There are no straight paths.
There are no straight paths.

When Delmar and Pete jump into the river to wash away their sins, we get a taste of human naivety and innocence. Hundreds of people, dressed in white, chanting “Oh brother let’s go down! Let’s go down to the river!” make their way through the thick bushes and twisted forest branches, finally stepping into the cold water of the Mississippi. It’s as if we’re witnessing a passage from the Holy Book, and indeed we witness a religious procession; salvation. Everett watches in disbelief as his two pals run to the priest, who helps them wash away their sins. The two prisoners believe it, the other hundred members believe it, a whole nation believes it. Or maybe they just wish they could believe it. The Coens want the audience to question the different point of views: who’s right? Everett for despising the religious act of salvation? Or Delmar and Pete for being so naive as to think that their criminal past could be forgotten with a simple splash of water? We even get to judge their choices when they’re confronted by a trio of beautiful sirens; like in Homer’s Odyssey, the gorgeous creatures lead the men to lose sight of their objective, slowing down the gang’s mission.

Fantasies can easily seduce you.
Fantasies can easily seduce you.

No worries. The Coen bros move when they know the territory. Who other than the Coens would have the guts and brains to write a State Governor candidate as the prime member of the local Ku Klux Klan? It’s a kick in the face to all those who think politics can be run honestly, all those who think that a good man can be a rich man. Fairy tales are for children. Here, the candidate running for Governor’s office organizes a private lynching of a black folk musician. The very man who wishes to run one of the largest states in the US hums to the drum roll’s rhythm, lights a crucifix and reaches out with a rope in his hand. If you think about it, the Coens’ crazy fantasy can be considered terrifying reality. Food for thought.

Governor's ball.
Governor’s ball.

The music. The music is the movie. Be it swing, country, folk, jazz, work songs, the music in O Brother tells the journey of the characters. The songs contain countless stories of spoiled politicians, prisoners having to work all day long, struggling musicians, devoted believers and starving farmers. The Coen brothers use music as a flashlight for the viewer, for him to find his way out of this messy, bizarre tale of men seeking a fortune… that in the end is not the fortune they seek. Their music describes the pain and suffering of a whole world, which keeps on dreaming, believing fantasies and apparitions. There is no American Dream within this music, nor within this life. And like that, with a simple comedy we’re taught what we’ve been always ignoring.

Be your own shepard. Dream later.

Finding the right track.
Finding the right track.