One Shot

Recently I’ve had the immense pleasure of experiencing a movie all over again. Sometimes you watch a movie and you’re not fully capable of grasping its essence, so you move on, you categorize it, you label it or worse yet, you rate it on a scale from 1 to 5 or from 1 to 10 and that’s it, you’re done. Case closed. This is what almost happened to me after the first viewing of Michael Cimino’s best picture winner of 1978, The Deer Hunter. This was a movie,  which after my first time watching it I categorized under ”Good but not that great – Far too long – Overrated – Uneventful.” Well, here I am writing this down on my computer: seeing The Deer Hunter‘s beautiful restoration in 4K on the big screen at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute might just be the single most impactful cinematic experience I’ve had so far, in all these years of movie watching. What the big screen helped me to see was the richness of the detail, the resounding echo of certain themes presented across all three acts and the emotional kick certain scenes hold, an aspect that is hard to notice once your point of view is limited to the box-like dimensions of most home screens. What The Deer Hunter shows is that when you are allowed to fully exploit the power of cinema across all sections (sound, visuals, storytelling, music, acting) you can indeed paint a canvas not only of a time and place, but of a general mindset as well, the mindset of a tribe, a village, a city and even a nation across a large fraction of time.

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”Give this man a drink!” says Michael, pointing at a war veteran.

Numerous reviews and discussions have been written and raised regarding the best picture winner that sparked a lot of controversy with its brutal scenes displaying the use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War for the first time since the war had ended a few years prior to the making of this movie. What I want to dedicate this post to is the development of character arc in this three-hour epic, something very few films nowadays are able to achieve due to numerous reasons, but above all 1) bad writing 2) constant constraints on the studio’s part. Because in order to do something similar to what The Deer Hunter does so brilliantly, you need good writing and artistic freedom; you need to be able to push through rules and regulations and exploit the cinematic form to its fullest potential to be able to tell a story that is fleshed out, emotional and important.

First of all, a lot has been said about The Deer Hunter and a lot of times it has been labeled as a war movie. But it’s not. The Deer Hunter, similarly to  Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), another personal favorite of mine, is a film about men in war, about what happens when you place human beings (NOT KILLING MACHINES) in a war-torn environment. In order to do this, The Deer Hunter uses the three-act approach that has been used for centuries in novels, short stories and plays. The three-act structure in The Deer Hunter is as follows: The Wedding – Vietnam – The Return. This allows the film to present key characters in their own world, then shake this very same world to its core, and place the characters back into it to see what this change brought to their lives, what their next step is, what their reality has turned into. The opening wedding chapter, although disliked by many due to its length (over 55 minutes!), is the key component to this three-hour puzzle. Through it not only do we realize that most of the story will take place in rural America, where steel mining is the only career path a man can take, but that this story will concern a particular community of people, namely Russian Orthodox immigrants, a community where characters are familiar with each other, where friends are like brothers and where marriage is for life. In this community people are born, live and die together, and the relationships that are made are made because there is no escaping this harsh difficult reality; in order to survive you need your neighbor, your local pastor and your local gym teacher. Our protagonists are tied to this small world for the rest of their lives as this is the only world they know, and the only world where they truly feel like they belong. The wedding sequence, aside from the wedding itself, concerns the departure of the three friends (Michael, Nick and Stevie) to Vietnam, and how the entire community experiences this proud moment together. The possibility of death is never mentioned by the members of this community. The only instance where we are faced with the alienated reality of Vietnam and a foreshadowing of what is about to come is when the three friends encounter a veteran who just returned from service and happened to stumble into the first bar on the street. When Michael (Robert De Niro) asks the veteran; ”Well, what’s it like over there?” the only response he gets from the veteran is ”Fuck it.” ”Fuck it” without a doubt is the phrase that encapsulates the fate of the three friends and more importantly, their experience of having to point of a loaded gun to their heads for the simple amusement of their captors.

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Love it while you have it.

After having established the friendships, love interests and their aspirations in the wedding chapter, The Deer Hunter places its characters straight into hell. There is no rise and fall scenario in this film. There is simply the introduction of a traumatic event and its aftermath.  The prelude to this chapter, however, takes place high in the mountains, where the group of friends go on a deer hunting escapade. In this brief sequence, De Niro’s character, the most experienced hunter, takes pleasure in squeezing the trigger and firing the deadly weapon. The act of shooting still holds a sacred meaning to him; to shoot a deer not only does it mean you’re a good shot – it also means you’re a man, capable of respecting the beauty of the animal before you with what he describes as ”One shot. That’s it,” and continues, ”A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” Killing a deer is an act that must be swift, clean and professional. Yet the death that Michael and his friends will experience from up close in Vietnam is anything but all these things; it’s dirty, pointless, lacking honor or respect. It’s what it is. Fuck it.

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Squeezing the trigger soon turns into…

Here is the most surprising aspect of The Deer Hunter – the actual war is shown for the briefest of moments (actual gunfire and combat take up only 15-20 minutes of runtime) as the film is completely aware of what the focus of the story should be on – the emotional state of the characters, not their physical actions. The return is in a sense the lowest of points for each character involved – it is the culmination of trauma, the clash with the old, familiar world and the inability to shake this trauma off and embrace the old, familiar world again. Christopher Walken’s character of Nick is the one protagonist whose trauma is so strong he does not dare look back – soon enough the only reality he can embrace is the reality where his life is worth a few hundred grand, depending on whether he gets lucky enough and the chamber in the gun turns out to be empty. As in most PTSD cases, Nick is simply unfit to live a normal life. There is no balance in Russian roulette, there’s only two extremes – either you live another day, or you blow your brains out and someone makes a lot of money on your death – this is the only line Nick is able to walk. Meanwhile, De Niro’s Michael, the toughest of the bunch, is, on the other hand, the only character fit enough to be able to face his old world. Unfortunately, this world, as loud and colorful as it was during the wedding celebration, upon Michael’s return has turned silent. The friends are there, Linda (Meryl Streep) is also there, just as emotionally broken as Michael, the city and the steel mill are there, and yet it’s quiet. It is a world that has lost connection with Michael, whose traumatic encounter with the war has set him apart from the rest of the society he once was a proud member of. Michael, a young man who once enjoyed himself working hard in the mill, drinking at the bar with friends and fellow workers, dancing with girls at local ceremonies and hunting deer like a professional, is now unable to squeeze the trigger decisively – with the deer staring right at him, the action of killing this majestic animal has lost all sense; it’s barbaric, it’s empty and meaningless. Thus, The Deer Hunter becomes a three-act film about being hopeful and proud, and having this hope and pride violently taken away, and being left on your own, with an alien world as your home.

Fuck it.

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…madness.
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Long Distance Call

Relationships. Ugh. Just the sound of this word in a cinematic context makes some people roll their eyes. What else can be said about relationships in movies? After all, we’ve seen all of them, all of them under the same light. Mostly negative. Think Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blue Valentine. Think in the line of thoughtful tearjerkers such as Carol and Far From Heaven. Even comedies. Mostly comedies, crappy ones. As a moviegoer, you’ll think to yourself: enough! We have seen all of them. We know what a relationship is. We know the different forms they assume in movies. There is the sex-driven one (Love & Other Drugs), the forbidden one (Brokeback Mountain), the subtle one (Out of Africa), and finally the goofy one (The Big Sick). Yet somehow, after all these years of world cinema, there is a very limited number of movies that mention one particular form of relationship: the long distance relationship. Sure, movies like Sleepless in Seattle and The Notebook tackled the specific form but I highly doubt any of us have taken those movies seriously, right? Now, let’s be honest, auteur cinema has never shown passion nor interest for this subject matter. Directors like Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Scorsese and Kubrick, and many others, as good and as artistic as they all are, interested in the human condition, human nature and whatnot, have never delved head-on into the depths of a long distance relationship. For most highbrow filmmakers, relationships are often considered an item that is to be used as background information for a particular character, eg. (Henry Hill’s relationship with his wife, Karen, in Goodfellas), so why should they be attracted to long distance relationships at all? Well, today I’m here to tell you about an Italian director who accepted the challenge at a very young age and successfully directed a beautiful film about this very subject. Today, I aim to pen down a few thoughts about the long distance relationship depicted in Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati (1963).

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Liliana and Giovanni.

The late great Ermanno Olmi passed away earlier this month and I believe he did so as one of the most overlooked directors of all time, a true visionary and simply put, a brilliant artist who undeservedly suffered from a lack of popularity outside of Italy even after he won the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 for his magnum opus, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an exhilarating take on life in the Italian countryside in the late 19th century and the struggle of that particular community of outcasts and social rejects. In short, that’s who Olmi was for those of you who haven’t had the chance to study his work; a man of the people, a man interested in people and the mechanisms within each individual. He was a director who gave a heartbeat to every  single living thing and cared for his characters like no other artist of the neo-realist wave that took over Italy’s film industry post World-War II all the way until the early 60s. As to the film, I Fidanzati is one of his lesser known works, often overshadowed by the aforementioned Tree of Wooden Clogs and the newly restored Il Posto, Olmi’s second feature about a young man desperately looking for a job in Milan. Still concerned with Italy’s Northern industrialism and focused on the local working class, Olmi’s I Fidanzati (literally, The Fiances) tells the story of how a relationship needs to be worked at with care and tenderness in order for it to survive during hard times of separation and doubt, in order for it to grow even during long stretches of darkness and despair.

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The opening dance.

Well then, how does Olmi do it? Where does the magic lie? First of all, the setting. The opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about the relationship we’re about to follow: an empty dance hall slowly but surely begins to fill up with locals. Women and men of all ages start dancing to live music, and while the dance continues and the music becomes livelier by the minute, we meet the two protagonists, Liliana and Giovanni, looking lost and quite uncomfortable being around each other. The reason for this discomfort is revealed in a scene that incercuts with the dance sequence; Giovanni is notified of an available job promotion all the way down in Sicily, in a new factory department, and as a result he must leave immediately. So what is the secret to this opening? Olmi does not pull any punches, instead he aims straight for the jugular and decides to pose the first and most important obstacle that the two protagonists will try to overcome as the movie progresses: distance, an overwhelming physical distance that might threaten their engagement, and eventually, their wedding plans. Giovanni, in frustration, dances with a stranger, and so does Liliana. Their fear and preoccupation are expressed through the joyful practice of dancing, an element that will set the tone for the rest of the movie, an element that should be strictly considered for poetic purposes. Eventually, right before Giovanni’s plane leaves, the two of them dance for one last time. What follows afterwards is Giovanni’s trip to Sicily, and this is where Olmi’s magical trick takes place.

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Giovanni’s loneliness.

Giovanni is, in my opinion, one of the least predictable male characters I have ever witnessed on screen, and through this unpredictability bursts out a profound sense of humanity that you rarely see in films nowadays. Giovanni’s new life in Sicily consists of habitual-driven actions and routine. He awakens, has a cup of coffee at the local bar, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed, repeat. The separation is expressed through the prominent use of wide-screen shot empty locations; bars, streets, factories. Giovanni’s loneliness is a result of Liliana’s absence as only she could fill the empty spaces he finds himself in. His taciturnity is his shield: Giovanni is a polite, quiet and respectful worker who, as demonstrated through a use of flashbacks and jump-cuts, can also turn into a sensitive lover, a dear companion and a faithful fiancée. But all of these listed qualities exist and can be transmitted to the viewer only because of the physical separation the two young lovers are  subject to. Olmi builds a desolate, lonely and silent world around Giovanni, a world, or better yet, an island like Sicily that torments its own inhabitants with an unbearable climate, little to no nature and the same sort of industrial way of life as Giovanni encountered in the familiar North.

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Sicilian nights… nights filled with thoughts.

Giovanni in his free time embarks on short trips across the region to find meaning, a feeling of accomplishment, joy, anything. He visits churches, goes to mass, celebrates a saint’s day with the rest of the inhabitants of the same town he lives in, seeks out fellow Northern workers, writes letters and eventually– constantly thinks about Liliana. The director allows the two lovers to converse throughout the movie through flashbacks, so that their relationship, instead of suffering and feeling threatened, is actually built upon. All of a sudden this separation becomes the driving engine of the relationship as it enables both characters to experience loneliness and regret, two essential elements of a real, matrimonial relationship. Their love grows through the physical distance and through the isolated life that Giovanni is forced to lead on this remote island. During moments of fatigue and helplessness, Liliana’s voice-over echoes across the screen, thus demonstrating the multitude of ways Olmi goes about solidifying their bond, instead of weakening it. Unlike so many other films, most of them following the Hollywood relationship recipe, that try to weaken their characters by presenting them with new challenges (eg, how to resist another woman), new enemies, etc, Olmi poses the unnatural emptiness as the only obstacle worth overcoming. In other words, I Fidanzati is as much a film about endurance, and the strength of the human spirit as it is a film about a specific relationship.

There is a beautiful moment worth noting near the end of this 70-minute-long film; Liliana reads aloud a letter she’s written to Giovanni, where she tells him about the time she got his letter. She says: ”I felt excited and happy running up the stairs. But then suddenly that happiness frightened me.” It is as if this sudden change in her daily routine made her aware of the kind of burden this long distance relationship has put on her shoulders. Suddenly, happiness has become an exclusive feeling in Liliana’s daily life, away from Giovanni and his peaceful, reassuring presence. All of a sudden, this distance has become a thrill to her. A reason not to lose hope.

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Happiness in its purest form.

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.

 

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

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. 
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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

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

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.