How to Get Away with a Stinker

How to Get Away with a Stinker

Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The HappeningAfter Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.

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Scott Cooper directing Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.

Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…

All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.

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The misery of Bad Blake.

Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.

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What could have been a good thriller.

Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and  De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.

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A snapshot that sums up Black Mass: empty, violent, ugly to look at.

Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.

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Not a good Western.

So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.

 

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Satan’s Dance

Satan’s Dance

Trauma: what’s the best way of capturing it  without the use of words? Shaky cameras, a shell shock ringing and black and white flashbacks don’t work anymore. What Saving Private Ryan achieved for the very first time is now being rehashed in almost every single Hollywood blockbuster that is out there not to make a point but to cash in the revenues. That is why I was left feeling extremely overwhelmed once the credits to Waltz with Bashir started to roll over a black screen.
Waltz with Bashir, an Oscar nominated animated movie directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, is without a doubt one of the most innovative and interesting visual displays of trauma I’ve ever seen. It plays on so many different, unseen, original notes and touches upon some crucial cinematic themes that aren’t brought up enough in today’s world of cinema, that it creates a surreal aura around itself and enters perhaps my top 10 of the 2000s. Let’s have a look at why its approach to such a difficult phenomenon such as human trauma is so unique.

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Ali Folman, the aging protagonist, desperate for answers.

We’re talking about an animated film that tackles the filmmaker’s personal experience as a 19-year-old infantry soldier in the 1982 war with Lebanon who witnesses a ruthless massacre (Sabra and Shatila massacre – the killing of almost 3500 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians) unfold right before his eyes. As an adult he has a hard time remembering what he saw and can’t bring himself to find the right answers so he decides to seek out others who were in Beirut at the time to discuss their memories, including a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders and the first journalist to cover the massacre.
The film follows the filmmaker as he interviews his old friends and strangers, and shifts from the present to the past using the power of animation. This is where the secret lies – the animation. 

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Landscape of death and destruction.


Waltz with Bashir uses traditional hand-drawn animation that translates incredibly well onto the screen due to the fact that most of the original interviews were used as a template by artist Yoni Goodman. The film as a whole was first shot on a sound studio and then transferred to a storyboard. This allowed the illustrations to gain a certain feeling of movement and energy. The dark hues enabled the filmmaker to present his vision of an almost surreal, dream-like (as well as nightmarish) world where very little is certain and where people don’t act according to any set of rules. Don’t let this fool you.
Waltz with Bashir is very realistic. Some of its scenes reminded me of the great war movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket especially with its juxtaposed use of upbeat 80s Israeli pop music playing over images of explosions and destruction. But this isn’t the point. The point is that this film manages to create something refreshing out of something so nostalgic and “outdated” as classic animation in order to bring up the issue of trauma.

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Recalling the past.

The loss of memory and especially the loss of a memory as harsh as the witnessing of a massacre can be easily interpreted as an example of trauma. One does not forget the sight of dead bodies nor the sound of shots being fired at a mass of women and children. However, that is what happens to the protagonist. His personal trauma is the pain that comes from the realization that his mind has completely canceled out such a brutal memory, as if he was responsible for it, as if he was the man who pulled the trigger. Perhaps it is the weight of guilt and desperation brought on him by trauma that make him seek out the truth.
Perhaps it’s only for personal reasons. In fact, the filmmaker never raises his voice, he never manages to get as emotional as we would wish him to be. Ari Folman’s voice is monotonous, predictable and yet it transmits the feeling that this man has been through a lot. The same goes for the people he interviews. Six out of eight interviews present in the movie are authentic interviews conducted by the filmmaker himself prior to the making of this movie.
Some of the interviewees talk about war the way they talk about going for a beer in the evening. Their voices are flat and their descriptions become repetitive and oversimplified but it’s precisely that, that makes these interviews and the way they are displayed visually so powerful and gut-wrenching. The unscripted voices of these interviewees deepen the film’s message and turn simple animation into a document, a film essay where an invisible thesis is made and arguments are brought up by the people at the microphone.

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Animation has no limits.

The film opens like some kind of thunderous nightmare. A pack of dogs with shining teeth takes an entire city by surprise and creates chaos. The camera tracks the dogs as these strong, growling beasts make their way across streets, parks and squares, spreading panic and fear in the eyes of bystanders. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why these dogs are relevant, but we know one thing: it’s disturbing and unsettling.
This opening sequence turns out to be a nightmare dreamt by one of Folman’s old pals from the war and succeeds in transmitting to the audience the overall feel of the movie in a matter of two minutes. Dogs from hell and soldiers with machine guns – there is no palpable difference, says Folman. The soldiers with machine guns have no motivation to do what they do best but they still do it, just like those blood thirsty dogs that storm the city for no reason other than to cause chaos and destruction.

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Humanity unleashed.

In terms of visuals the movie is capable of conveying to the viewer where the present is and where the past takes over. Contemporary action unfolds with a much darker color palette, mainly using a contrast of black and orange  in order to create this neon-light effect that pulsates with a sense of nostalgia and regret. Most frames are occupied by one or two characters, reminiscent of documentary style filmmaking. Sometimes it’s just desolate landscapes, a silent night, filled with Max Richter’s moving classical score.

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When reality ends and dreams take over.

It is only when the movie shifts back to the past that the film assumes a different kind of spirit – a much more conventional one. The colors become  brighter and easier on the eye. There is a prominent use of light green and yellow; shadows are also used to present a very realistic depth of field. The storytelling is visual, helped by an omnipresent voice-over narration that shift from various perspectives depending on the interviewee.
If carefully analyzed, one can  come to the conclusion that this method of storytelling is the epitome of experiencing a traumatic event. In a sense, these shifting perspectives represent the human mind playing tricks on us. The story spins around on it itself but it never manages to find a firm safe point; every account that is being told is doubtful, ambiguous and unreliable. As I sat down and watched this movie I never felt sure of the next step – it always felt as if I was watching a number of different unrelated stories put together as a whole in order to fool me, in order to feed me something that at the end turns out to be something else. Folman’s trauma is unraveled step by step like a play constructed of different acts. His memory loss reflects an attitude of a man who fears himself, fears what he is capable of and what the people around him are capable of.

The world of Waltz with Bashir is populated by normal, everyday people who at times, depending on the situation, can turn into blood thirsty hounds, willing to kill an entire city just for the simple taste of blood. And I think that that is one of the most accurate depictions of trauma you’ll ever find on the silver screen.

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Nothing comes easy.

Hateful Love

Hateful Love

Creating conflict in film is an extremely hard task to carry out. The characters must be believable, their actions must be motivated and triggered by something, the dialogue and the action cannot fall flat and the whole story must end with some kind of development. Conflict cannot be stagnant. Many writers have failed in delivering an honest depiction of conflict, they usually get caught up in their words, they fall in love with them, and end up writing a very robotic screenplay.
Take August: Osage County, the 2013 Oscar nominated movie about a shattered family getting back together after the death of a family member, based on a play by the same title. What it tried to achieve was a violent portrayal of a family falling to pieces, mothers, daughters and sons turning their backs on each other. What it failed to do was to make the conflict feel human. The characters, mainly the ones played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, are incredibly artificial in the way they function. There is nothing human about them and the way they act. Everything seems make-belive for the screen and in fact, it is. And that’s why it failed so miserably at telling a story that could have been otherwise special and significant in terms of its underlying themes. 
Glengarry Glen Ross, 
on the other hand, also based on Mamet’s play (who also wrote the script for the movie) succeeds in creating conflict because of the setting it uses. The characters act like robots because of the environment they find themselves operating in. Their world has no mercy. A real estate firm that is struggling to stay afloat. It is the reason for their hostility towards each other, it keeps them going; their mission is to make it until the end of the day. Dog eat dog, and it works.
However, today I want to go over a film that perhaps initiated this whole verbal war of two or more parties. A film that was directed by a masterful artist who knew how the human mind worked but wanted to know more, wanted to get to the core of it. This man, Ingmar Bergman, was intrigued by relationships and life in general, and there is no finer example for this than his drama made in 1978, Autumn Sonata.

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Ingrid Bergman’s finest hour right before her death couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the theme this particular movie tackles. Ingrid Bergman (in no way related to the director of this film) was the star of the 1940s and 1950s. She was hailed as the greatest actress of the decade after her performance in the legendary Casablanca. She was the foreign movie star that made it big on the silver screen. Later on in the late 1940s she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian neo realist, and they began making movies together (Stromboli, Journey to Italy, Europe ’51) and that sealed her legacy as one of the very best actresses of world cinema. That is why her performance in Autumn Sonata is so fitting. In the movie, Bergman plays Charlotte Andergast, a successful classical pianist, who sacrificed her responsibilities as a mother of two for the sake of her career. Bergman herself admitted that this was the most personal screenplay she had ever worked on as she felt responsible for abandoning her home and her family in order to chase fame, glory and romance. But I’m not here to gossip, I’m here to talk about the on-going conflict presented in this picture.

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Music as the key to destruction.

The two characters, mother and daughter, Charlotte and Eva, haven’t seen each other in almost seven years. Charlotte is invited to stay over for a few days after the death of her companion, Leonard. Mother and daughter come together. The pain that comes with the insecurity of looking at each other is unbearable for both of them. What is remarkable about this conflict is that at first it is not open. It is kept shut, suppressed by excitement and fear. Eva smiles, stares down at her feet or straight at the walls of her house located in the Norwegian countryside. Charlotte, on the other hand, laughs it off, makes herself comfortable and when she finds herself alone in the guest room she starts talking to herself. She talks because it is her only method of making sure there is still a heart beating inside of her. We get two sides for each of these two women. Charlotte seems tough, successful and well respected but it turns out it’s the other way around. She suffers like every other mortal, she is haunted by bad decisions and countless regrets. Eva is the child that suffered the most, along with her younger sister who is victim of a paralyzing illness.

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Ingmar Bergman builds the story bit by bit and that is the key to Autumn Sonata’s effectiveness. He takes his time but lays out the clues early on when Eva’s husband speaks directly to the camera in the opening scene telling us about Eva’s disturbed past and her quest to make amends with her mother. Right from the start we get a glimpse of the tragedy that has loomed over Eva’s family. Charlotte is her biggest enemy and at the same time the person who was supposed to be her closest friend. The drama between these two works like clockwork, with Eva battling her insecurities and slowly opening up and letting out her frustrations in an extremely emotional confrontation, where she ends up stuttering, breaking into a maniacal, uncontrollable cry.
And right here, Ingmar Bergman’s brilliance in handling emotions on screen comes into play. As I sat watching this scene unfold with my jaw dropped I could not help but think to myself how unfair Eva is being toward her own mother. Why? After all, Eva had her reasons, Charlotte was always cold toward her own child, she did nothing but escape difficult situations, she cheated on her husband and took pleasure in spending most of her time far away from home. And yet… somehow I managed to understand her. I did not sympathize but I could understand both perspectives. Charlotte’s life was struck by a wave of success and glory while Eva’s was haunted by the lack of motherly love and appreciation.
There is a certain balance in the suffering of the two women. Both are very different, age-wise but also character-wise. Charlotte acts tough. Eva, on the other hand, is the vulnerable little girl. But both are wearing masks and both are afraid to reveal their true identities. Like in his earlier, most famous work, Persona, Bergman plays with the idea of identity and the weight it carries. In Persona the women suddenly merge into one, they become one unit. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is too thick and sets mother and daughter apart. There is a feeling of frustration when watching the scenes unfold. The viewer seeks truth and yet there are lies in each point of view. Charlotte’s vague memory is not enough to make us believe her, and Eva’s raw, emotional account of her childhood is perhaps too honest to believe.
What stands out in this conflict is the fact that there is no mention of a tragic event that initiated the whole affair. In most movies there is always that one incident of violence that sets the tone for a relationship (think Rain Man and the hot water accident that became the reason for Dustin Hoffman character’s institutionalization) and becomes the main theme of the movie. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is genuine because of its slow creation. It’s a matter of years of emotional struggle rather than one moment of carelessness or evil. Both characters have grown over the years, their paths have gone different ways but what ties them is the past built on countless moments of miscommunication and emotional absence. Bergman stages this film like a play, where characters’ thoughts are expressed aloud almost as if the actors were reading the script to an audience. The action is present, the viewer is in the moment along with the cast of characters. Bergman doesn’t believe in distance, his camera is always intimate, at times too intimate and it can lead to being almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch. Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman play off each other like normal humans would do. There is an honest reflection in their delivery but there is also a hidden hostility toward the characters they play. It is as if they were forced to be there, to play those parts, and they want to get rid of the burden because it is too much to handle. It is, after all, a beautiful tragedy that spares no one. It is a conflict of words rather than action. It is a conflict that still speaks to us. And rightly so.

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Child of America

Child of America

Why are independent movies so important to the film industry nowadays? Look closer and you’ll see that before and after 9/11 independent movies began to emerge onto the big stage. In the last few years there’s been three independent Best Picture winners; MoonlightSpotlight and Birdman. Among other Oscar winning movies in recent years you have RoomWhiplashBoyhoodBeasts of the Southern WildEx MachinaLittle Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and many, many more. It is evident that something must have happened within the industry and the way people, celebrities and critics react to low budget movies for independent cinema to become so popular and well liked. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Academy has changed its available slots for Best Picture (used to be five, now it is ten) and has allowed more room for the nominees, more flexibility. It can also be the outcome of better distribution and marketing, or maybe the importance of independently-oriented film festivals such as Sundance or Telluride has grown significantly in recent years.
Everything comes down to where it all started. What movie initiated this? I think I have an idea of what it was. When it came out it wasn’t popular at all, it made little to no money, it was shot on reversal 16mm, a very underused lens even in today’s age of experimental arthouse cinema, and it didn’t have any big name actors aside from a couple of fading stars. In other words, it was the epitome of what an independent film should be. The movie I’ve decided to write about is Buffalo ’66, a little gem from 1998, a true game-changer that made people realize how unique an independent movie (aside from low budget documentaries) can really be in order to stand out in a money-ruled industry.

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“Make me look good. Just shut up and make me look good.”

Buffalo ’66 is getting more and more recognition as the years go by. It launched a short but lively career for actress Christina Ricci and introduced the mysterious, unstable figure of Vincent Gallo to the world of media. It established a certain artsy quality, the one you could find in French New Wave cinema, to independent filmmaking and represented a ‘return to the roots’ similar to the first low budget films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi).
Billy, played by Gallo himself, is your average Joe who spent the last few years in prison for a crime he did not commit but for some strange reason took upon himself, ruining his own life, drifting further away from his family and what he knew as the real world. Once he comes out, everything seems to have changed. It’s colder, the streets are covered with snow, the city is deserted, nothing is quite the way it used to be. He decides to avenge his past suffering by killing the man who was responsible for making him lose the bet that changed his whole life for the worse – a football player for the Buffalo Bills that failed to make the game-winning field goal in the Superbowl and is now the owner of a prominent strip club in Woodlawn, New York. But first, he has to do the one thing that really pains him and that is – visit his parents. In order to do this he kidnaps Layla (played by the once beautiful Christina Ricci) and forces her to act as his beloved wife, making him look good in front of his judgmental father (Ben Gazzara) and his absent, football-loving mother (Anjelica Huston).

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This is Billy. Miserable, isn’t he?

What at first glance seems to be your traditional crime drama soon turns your expectations upside down and you can be sure of it, steals your heart. Because Buffalo ’66 is not about guns, fights and tough character. It is precisely about the opposite; about feelings, innocence and the lost masculinity of the average American man. It is pretty ironic how Vincent Gallo mistreated Christina Ricci, verbally abusing her on set, criticized the film’s cinematographer, taking all the credit for his work and all around behaved like a bully. But sometimes artists are the opposite of perfect. Buffalo ’66 accurately depicts the message Gallo wanted to transmit. The character of Billy acts tough, curses and plays the part of the ex-con but at the heart of it, he is one of the most vulnerable and insecure characters ever portrayed on screen. Think of it, even the name ‘Billy’ is not the name you’d expect from someone who uses the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence and kidnaps a girl for odd reasons. As he emerges from the prison building, Billy appears to be a very slim man, his long arms and long legs make him look like a cartoon character more than a cinematic one. His body language is that of a man who hasn’t fully grown yet, haunted by bad memories, a troubled childhood and an unknown future. He wanders outside the state penitentiary with his arms crossed, shaking because of the cold, and in need of a quick visit to the bathroom. In other words, Billy doesn’t come off as glamorous and confident, instead he is the character we usually tend to expect to be playing a supporting role. Well, now here he is, says Gallo, this loser is your protagonist, deal with it.

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You thought telephone conversations couldn’t be painful, huh?

Layla, on the other hand, is not your traditional leading female character. She is just a teenager, with the features, as pointed out by Billy’s father, of a grown woman (lovely face, large, firm breasts) but the spirit of a young, untamed schoolgirl. Layla’s existence is a statement from Gallo against conventional cinema, the expectations it builds up and usually fails to deliver. What starts off as a sloppy kidnapping, slowly but effectively turns into a story about two souls who really do not fit this earth, no matter what they do. Their actions are unreasonable, they are unable to communicate, and it feels like they live in a transparent bubble, locked away from the ‘normal’ American citizens. In some way or another, Billy and Layla represent independent filmmaking. They do not fit the system, they do not have friends, lovers nor reliable relatives. They are on their own, fighting against the odds with minimal expectations for a positive outcome.

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Layla and her looks.

Billy’s actions have no real goal. His visit to his family home in Buffalo turns out to be a total disaster. He stops at on the front porch, kneels down and starts to feel dizzy. Memories rush to his head. Layla is unable to help him. She tries to comfort him but he swats her hand away, telling her he’s absolutely fine. And yet there he is, sitting next to his kidnapped victim, twisting in pain and looking more miserable than ever. Once he decides to step in and ring the door bell everything goes from bad to worse. His father is a nervous wreck, bored with his life, lacking anything to show for it; his mother is a football fanatic that operates like a robot and doesn’t leave the TV set for a split second. Both parents have absolutely wiped out any sort of memory from Billy’s troubled childhood. In fact, they only one photograph of him from when he was a little boy.
The whole scene at the family dinner table is shot like a scene from a movie by Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, with the static camera placed on the same level as the characters, making it all look even less cinematic. It is against Hollywood conventions, it throws the awkwardness of the scene, the difficulty of communication between parents and son and the ridiculousness of the characters right at you. At times it can turn out to be hilarious and yet it also feels painful to watch. It’s drama wrapped in comedy and heartache. Like independent filmmaking, the visit to the family place represents a risk. It is a challenge that an average Joe like Billy has to face in order to make things right or as he says to Layla, ‘Make it look good, make me look good.’ For Billy even the slightest incident or remark from Layla’s or his parents’ part is a genuine difficulty and represents a threat to his own story, his own existence. Billy is not William. He is still the innocent child who has trouble keeping up with the adults. It’s the small time director having trouble keeping up with the blockbusters at the box office. It’s art having trouble keeping up with the wake of modern technology such as portable camcorders, mobile phones and computers. 

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The struggle between father and son.

Buffalo ’66 is the struggle of the crook, the criminal, the blue collar worker. And that is why it is so gripping, painful and unique. It deals with palpable subject matters, it is about the real world and real characters. It is about vulnerability, and who the hell in the 90s, a time of Tarantino movies and Schwarzenegger action blockbusters, had any interest mentioning that ‘girly’ stuff? Well, independent cinema thought otherwise. And perhaps that is the reason why today’s independent movies like Little Miss Sunshine with its family of misfits, Moonlight with its insecure, black gay protagonist, and Birdman, with its washed up actor, make it big by telling unconventional stories. They all aspire, without even knowing, to the simplicity of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.

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The Janitor in all of Us

The Janitor in all of Us

I want to talk about what it means for a character to be ‘contemporary’ because we hear that word being thrown around a lot lately. ‘Contemporary’ best describes something that is happening right now, right this second. It is an observation of the present time and something that applies to a large group of people. Some performances are so contemporary that they end being trapped in their small present universe and have trouble being recognized in the later decades. Think any performance by James Stewart, Sidney Poitier or even Lauren Bacall. At the time of their ‘creation’ they were considered to be the top form of acting and yet, as we look back upon them now we get the feeling that something is not right. Something doesn’t fit the picture anymore and it gets under our skin forcing us to ask ourselves how come the distance between the viewer and the character is so palpable. Well, sometimes you stumble into a performance that is so contemporary to the point it becomes timeless, and not for its myth, but for its raw, larger than life depiction and delivery. Think Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, a performance that was meant to embody the anger and frustration of Martin Scorsese’s generation and still manages to surprise us up to this day. Think Sean Penn in Mystic River, where we get the brutal portrayal of an everyday man desperate to avenge his daughter’s murder. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, the story of an oilman at the beginning of the 19th century who gives up his entire life in order to become rich. And finally, think Casey Affleck in this year’s Manchester by the Sea. Yes, Casey Affleck’s character is more relevant than ever and will be for a long time to come. Why? Go on, have a read.

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Welcome to Lee’s empty world.

Lee Chandler is the name of the character. He is a middle-aged janitor and handyman working in a few apartment buildings in Boston, who seems to have trouble dealing with everyday life and the people surrounding him. He is enveloped in his own little world and is hesitant to come out of it. For some odd reason we are not surprised. On the other hand, every now and then we witness these flashbacks that show us the young Lee Chandler, a boyish fisherman from a little town up north, by the sea, who spends his days fishing, sailing and playing around with his brother (Kyle Chandler in a very Marc Ruffalo-esque role) and his nephew, little Patrick. The past almost merges with the present and sometimes it is not easy to distinguish which one is which. In fact, this difficulty in pointing out the past and the present helps the film’s character development in a major way. We get the side of free, almost teenager Lee who enjoys drinking, playing table tennis, partying with his friends but also enjoys taking care of his family, his wife, his two daughters and his youngest son. Then something happens. A real tragedy. A point of no return. And the past inevitably triggers the present. Lee is transformed by a series of dramatic events. The present is just as painful as the past, says writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me; Margaret), and there is no way of denying it when Lee, busy shoveling piles of snow and clearing someone’s toilet, receives a phone call from the hospital up in Manchester telling him his beloved older brother just died of a fatal heart attack. Tragedy follows Lee as he quits the job and drives out to his hometown in order to take care of the funeral arrangements. There is one problem though, Patrick, Lee’s nephew, is now to be taken care of by Lee himself, nominated in his brother’s will as the boy’s guardian. And that is when we get Casey Affleck’s full range as an actor.

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The beast in me.

What makes this powerhouse of a performance so contemporary is the way the actor manges to bottle up any kind of emotion and at the same time produce the triple amount of feeling for the character to be human and realistic. Lee Chandler is a walking zombie, empty and at the same time filled to the brim, close to self destruction, without any real purpose to his life. He breathes because his body tells him to do so. He walks because his legs and muscles are still intact, but there is nothing more than a bunch of memories stuck inside of his heart. Affleck’s job is tougher than it looks. He has to play a character without any ambition, without any goal or presence, and still make him look human. His body language is very simple, trapped in a cage, unable to do more than one thing at a time, unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Let’s face it, whatever Lee had to offer to the world, he doesn’t have it anymore. He’s like a dried-up well, a machine that is oiled enough to perform the same task over and over again. So why do we empathize with such an uninteresting character? How come we’re drawn to a person lacking any real identity? After all, we’ve seen so many similar characters fail because of the actors’ inability to transmit any feeling or story, more like shadows than bodies. Instead, Affleck is different. There is a rare intensity to his acting, the kind you usually find in Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting, or even the acting of the glory days of young Pacino. The intensity comes from the physical as well as ‘spiritual’ silence of the character. The little bursts of violence and frustration we get out of Lee happen only when he’s drunk enough to get into a meaningless brawl in a bar. That’s when the viewer has the rare possibility of getting a glimpse at the tamed beast resting within Lee, similarly to Sean Penn’s character in Mystic River, who seems quiet and controlled throughout most of the movie with the exception of the scene where he discovers his daughter’s dead body and explodes into a maniacal rage. In this case, the fireworks aren’t that potent, but it still is a beautiful example of how a subtle performance can turn a quiet character into a powerful, dominating on-screen presence. Lee is a human wreck we should all be capable of understanding. The struggle in his eyes, his gestures, is a very realistic one. It is not a fantasy story and that is also why Manchester by the Sea, a small indie film produced by Amazon studios is racking up all the awards right now: because it deals with reality in a very non-Hollywood, gritty way. Lee’s actions are human, difficult to justify, sometimes illogical but that is precisely why he is so believable and present when we see him on the silver screen. Affleck has always been in my opinion an extremely underrated actor, able bring humanity even to the most despicable characters such as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He subtracts the masculinity everyone seeks nowadays and adds a shattered, broken quality that makes everything seem more natural and at the same time, more difficult to understand. Most viewers don’t like to be played around with but that’s what great actors do, they play around and toy with your emotions. Lee Chandler is like that, he confronts himself, his ex-wife and you, the viewer. He makes you grit your teeth. And it hurts.

Welcome to reality.

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Failure, pain, realization.

So Long, Friend.

So Long, Friend.

Interaction between actors is key in order to fully enjoy a movie, isn’t it? There have been countless movies, even ambitious ones, with interesting concepts, fine directors, but when the interaction between actors isn’t there everything comes crashing down.  There has to be some sort of understanding between the characters, a feeling of acknowledgment because sometimes actors carry huge egos with them and this can become a problem on screen.

That is why people like to praise chemistry. Chemistry is what we see in Hot FuzzThe Birdcage, Chungking Express, A Bronx Tale or Some Like it Hot. Sometimes movies like to rely on characters rather than plots, and that’s when characters played by actors need some content. They need to have that raw feeling of existence.

Here are my top five movie duos of all time;

  1.  WALTER MATTHAU / JACK LEMMON

    – It’s almost impossible to set these two apart. Nowadays, when people think of comedy they think of Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Steve Carell or Jonah Hill but they also tend to forget an old breed of actors that will never fade away from our screens. Sure, once you had Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and all those old school faces. However, my personal favorite, a duo of such talented actors that it didn’t matter if it was comedy or drama – they always delivered – has got to be the Matthau / Lemmon engine. They added warmth and genuineness to their relationship on screen. Surely, the fact that they treated each other like brothers off screen played a big role.  When they faced off nobody could stop the laughs. They were that good. They were the real deal.
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2.  SOPHIA LOREN / MARCELLO MASTROIANNI          in  A Special Day

–  They have worked on countless projects together but I need to make the distinction for this one.  Loren and Mastroianni were the giants of Italian cinema for decades. Loren had won an Oscar, while Mastroianni had been nominated 3 times by the time they teamed up for this film. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it  because a movie like this one doesn’t come around so often.  Lost among countless movies that deal with the same subject matter – fascist rule and oppression – A Special Day shines there where others miss as it keeps the entire drama within an apartment building in Rome and lets the actors do their job. Believe me, it works to perfection. Mastroianni plays a lonely man, clearly afraid of something or someone, while Loren is the mother of four and the wife of a cheating husband. He is on the run, she stays at home and takes care of the family mess. They are cut off from reality and at the same time they are the victims of it. What the two actors achieve in terms of chemistry is untouchable: they share the pain, they share the moments of pure silence, they share laughs and they know when too far is too far. They don’t fall into melodrama. They stay afloat. Together, they represent a cry for freedom.

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3.  HEATH LEDGER / JAKE GYLLENHAAL         in Brokeback Mountain

– If you want to talk about heartbreak, here it is. It’s difficult to pull of a good comedy as a couple but it’s perhaps harder to pull off a good drama as a gay couple.  Ledger and Gyllenhaal immortalized two very different roles in the most memorable way possible.  The story is incredibly important when it comes to Brokeback Mountain, but the performances are even more so. Thank God Ang Lee casted these two magnificent actors because I doubt anyone can think of a better acting duo for this kind of job. It’s the quiet moments that count in Ang Lee’s movie, when the two cowboys feel timid and ashamed of their sexuality.  It’s the moments of hesitation that follow the first kiss between the two. Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is the boyish cowboy of the two.  He is the one who believes in dreams, who thinks anything is possible if taken care of properly. Meanwhile, Ledger plays the quieter one, the tough guy on the exterior. He pulls off one of the best performances by an actor I think we’ll ever see. When these two confront each other, the movie becomes alive because of how well they understand the importance of their roles and their forbidden relationship. The feeling between the two men is palpable and at the end, we want to touch it, bathe in it, but it’s not there anymore. It’s been cut in half.

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4.  JOHN WAYNE  /  WALTER BRENNAN         in Rio Bravo

– The most iconic duo in cinema? Well, for me it’s the pairing of two of the biggest stars of the 40s and 50s. Wayne and Brennan are the essence of the Wild West. If you want to dive into the Western genre, pick any of their movies. My number one choice goes to their pairing in Rio Bravo, a classic movie that in so many ways talks about things that still matter to this day.  John Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a lawman of the dying breed who wants end injustice on the streets of a small town, while Walter Brennan is Stumpy, the devoted long-time deputy of the Sheriff. The two actors, after having worked on a few projects prior to this movie (the most important of all, Red River), have a similar comedic chemistry to Matthau and Lemmon’s, meaning they know how to play off of one another. Stumpy is the grumpy character while Wayne is the man who tries to act stern and serious and ends up smiling anyway. The two work miracles with a script that could have easily been just another classic Western shoot-the-bad-guys-crack-a-few-jokes kind of movie. Brennan and Wayne clearly know how to have fun while acting and make the most out of so many glorious scenes, especially the last stand-off. They don’t make them like this anymore.

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5.  MAGGIE CHEUNG / TONY LEUNG  CHIU-WAI          in In The Mood For Love

– This one is a more discrete choice for a top acting duo. Wong Kar-Wai’s love story is a complex study of physiological pain and loneliness which follows two characters, Mrs. Chan and Chow Mo-wan, as they discover that their respective partners are cheating on them.  This unconventional love story turns into a game of chess, because as they dive into their loneliness, both characters get closer to each other. The two leads  have the task to deliver an emotional impact on the viewer while trying to keep up with the director’s experimental instructions. Wong Kar-Wai is one of the finest, ‘weirdest’ directors out there and his filmmaking style focuses much more on the directing part of the job than the part that consists of instructing the actors on what to do.  The two leads have to invent themselves and then again, re-invent themselves as the plot shifts and ends in a very gentle, subtle and elegant manner. A movie so perfectly crafted and yet so powerful can only be achieved with two great performances by actors that know what to do and when.

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Vibrations of Life

Vibrations of Life

Drama is something extremely hard to do.  Good drama, I mean. Maybe more so than comedy. Maybe that’s only how I see it but in recent years there have been very few films that tackle drama without slipping into the shallow, predictable melodrama (Silver Linings Playbook is one of those). In film, if you want to leave a mark on the viewer, if you want him to truly feel affected by what he’s seeing, then you have to make drama feel like real life drama. Characters that go around yelling, screaming, crying, kicking furniture and repetitively shouting out swear words does not necessarily transmit the characters emotions properly. Once upon a time there was this little Japanese fellow, a man who lived his entire life as a single man and spent his days over at his mother’s place writing scripts and whatnot. This man was Yasujirō Ozu, one of the greatest filmmakers of all the time,  inventor of the ‘tatami’ shot (a type of shot in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat) and master of silent drama. Ozu, to those who know him, was the real deal when it came to telling stories of daily life, blue collar work, boredom, rituals, routines, and so on. He brought the most powerful human emotions to the screen in a very quiet, organized way. But today I do not wish to write about Ozu, although I could write entire pages on him. Today I wish to bring to light a name that perhaps hasn’t been heard so much in the ‘pop’ mainstream cinema world of today. The name is Hirokazu Koreeda. And the movie I want to talk about is Still Walking from 2008.

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Still Walking is the definition of real life. Real relationships. The setting is the small town of Yokosuka, Japan. The time frame is 24 hours in the life of a family that reunites after not seeing each other for quite some time. Toshiko and Kyohei are the parents, the eldest generation. They’re hosting the family reunion over at their place. Chinami is the daughter, who has a husband and two children. Ryota is Chinami’s brother, and he brings along his new wife, Yukari (who married him as a widow) and her son from the previous marriage. What lies beneath all the layers of family life?  The horrific death by drowning of the eldest son, Ryota’s older brother, who died while saving another boy’s life twelve years prior to this reunion. Wow, this is Brazilian telenovela material, huh? Wrong. You see, Koreeda is a director who has always had an interest in exploring relationships, their value in people’s lives, the importance of a compact family (like in his later film, Like Father, Like Son) and the teachings family members can absorb from it (like in this year’s Koreeda film, Our Little Sister). It seems as if it’s his mission to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. In Still Walking the sound of the cicadas outside, the water running from the tap in the kitchen, something boiling on the cooker, children laughing and playing under the warm sunlight, it all adds up when creating an atmosphere, which will be used in order to tell the story. Like family, this movie has many different layers and fractions. We get glimpses of the relationship between mother and daughter, mother and son, father and daughter, and most importantly father and son. Ryota suffers when he looks his father in the eye. The man who never acknowledged him for who he was, but always wished him the worst. The man who felt the wrong son had died.

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And this is when Koreeda draws his inspiration from Ozu. The way he handles the painful pauses, the quiet moments of dinner time, particular characters questioning each other’s motifs without talking to one another, is incredibly subtle and yet the vibrations, the force of it can be felt just by watching what goes on on the screen. Koreeda focuses on acting, just like Ozu. He waits for the right reaction and if the actor has some tough time with it, he waits, letting the camera roll until the actor finally gets it. The moments are not cut in half like most in most movies today.  As I said, Koreeda seeks the ultimate truth. His camera is there to find it. Actors play off each other in a magnificent way and nothing feels out of place or awkward or false. It feels necessary and natural at the same time, it feels like real life. Problems are not skipped and forgotten, everything needs to stripped down and taken apart and put back into its former place. There is tension between certain characters but it is never expressed. It is there and it is felt but characters try to suppress it and this heightens the film’s emotional impact. The viewer demands justice, we live in an age where we all want the big payoff at the end, and here, we don’t get it. A family stays a family, it has its problems, its ups and downs, but it is still a family. There is death, there is disappointment, regret, frustration, embarrassment and empathy. Everything becomes part of Koreeda’s tale of life, really. Similarly to Ozu, Koreeda does not wish to make a big moral ending out of nothing. He just wants to let simplicity sink in. Every frame is soaked in simplicity and maybe that is the secret of good drama. Both directors do not reveal the whole truth to us, they expect us to work it out ourselves.  It is the viewer’s duty to be able to work things out, if we’re proper human beings, we’ll understand, says Koreeda.

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Father and son.