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.

Forever Gazing

What is that one thing we can’t put our finger on ? That one feeling, that sense of burning right in our guts that we can’t put out? That tremendous force that gives us strength in our weakest moments?
Love has been the subject of many, many, many, many movies. Some bad, some horrible, some good, some very good, and then there is John Cassavetes and Krzysztof Kieślowski. I’ll write about Cassavetes some other time. Today I’ll focus solely on the man himself, the angel of cinema; quite simply –  Kieślowski. His films were always stripped naked, torn apart and put back together. They were and still are to this day, in my opinion, the essence of cinema. They embody the power a film can carry, be it political, emotional or physical. Krzysztof Kieślowski was in my eyes both a student and a professor. By creating his movies, doing what he loved, he learned a lot and he taught a lot. His films weren’t just celluloid moving pictures – they were tales, parables, poems and reports. After having spent most of his early career making documentaries, he had the natural eye of a hawk. He wanted to know more about why we are here and why we act a certain way. He studied violence (A Short Film About Killing), he studied the concept of a soul (The Double Life of Veronique), he studied betrayal and spirituality (Decalogue: Two, Decalogue: One), he studied grief and anger (Three Colors: Blue), he studied chance and fate (Blind Chance), and after all of this, he also studied one of the most complex themes in movie history: love in A Short Film About Love (the extended version of Decalogue: Six).

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Tomek.

What made it so special? What was so accurate and poignant about  Kieślowski’s take on love? Well, for starters it presented love in a difficult situation. Tomek, the young protagonist, is lonely and misunderstood. His only way of approaching the woman he is so in love with is by spying on her through a stolen telescope. The woman he spies on is much older than him. She is also lonely, just like him, but manifests it differently; by inviting each night a different lover to her apartment. Tomek’s love is a hardship. He witnesses as Magda makes love with countless nobodies, men who do not appreciate her the way Tomek does. And it’s nothing physical. Kieślowski is not vulgar at all. Love is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy that can be crushed by anything at anytime. It is incredibly fragile. If someone sees him spying on Magda, it’s over. If Magda turns her back to him, it’s over. If the telescope malfunctions, it’s over.

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When the observed becomes the observer.

Kieślowski’s camera is again, an object meant for spying. We are spying someone who’s spying someone else at the same time. It is as if the director wanted us to feel Tomek’s pain, angst and fear of being discovered. Like all of Kieślowski’s films, this one is very personal and I think it doesn’t only apply to me or Kieślowski himself but to all of you too. Magda begins to watch Tomek. Everything all of a sudden turns upside down. She wants to observe her observer. She wants to feel what he feels. She wants to taste something she hasn’t tasted in a long time. Is love only a game of who watches who?
Piesiewicz, long time screenwriting partner of Kieślowski, and Kieślowski manage to add a flavor of simplicity, youth and uncertainty to this unique study. Their version of love is not sexual. Their version of love is beautiful but also dangerous and cruel. It can be both fatal and life saving. It’s a feeling that can keep you trapped for the rest of your life. And in a way, as we watch the story unfold (and all of the Decalogue, really) we get a feeling we’re trapped with the characters  living in an austere apartment block in communist Warsaw (the series was filmed in 1987, but released world wide only ten – fifteen years later). We find ourselves stuck the whole time between two windows opposite each other; Magda’s and Tomek’s. What is the point Kieślowski’s trying to make? Is love’s strength limited? Is it painful and monotonous? Can it be cut in half? That’s the thing with Kieślowski. He doesn’t give you answers. He formulates ideas, he paints heartbreaking and honest pictures, he suggests to you, his audience, to pay attention to a certain theme or emotion, and then he lets it flow.

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Love is life. Without love there is no hope. Without hope there is no future, and how can there be no future? Yes, no matter how sad, melancholic, brutal and honest Kieślowski’s films are, especially A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, there is always hope. There is always something we look forward to. The taste in your mouth at the end of his movies can be bitter. The feeling in your stomach can be prickly. But whatever happens, there is always something. Here, Tomek looks up at Magda, and there is a vibration, and intensity between them. In Kieślowski’s movies the simplest of all things can become significant – a look, a blink of an eye, a gesture, a hint of a smile, a bit of love.

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The simplest of all things…

The Sad Story

After World War II, cinema changed forever. Audiences developed a different kind of sensibility, and suddenly the stories that were being told, usually touched upon very depressive themes rather than  melodramatic ones. European cinema, particularly Italian cinema, managed to completely change the way we react and perceive film as an art form. Italian Neorealism was meant to tell stories that no one dared to tell before. It followed characters who came from poverty and struggle. The camera acted as a reporter, it zoomed in and shined a light on the unseen and the unwanted. There was Roberto Rossellini with his War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then there was Luchino Visconti with Obsession and La Terra Trema. These were movies that came straight up from the ground, from the dirt, the ashes. The protagonists of these movies were the common folk, the poor and lonely. And yet, for me Vittorio De Sica was the one who did it best. Bicycle Thieves, his most famous work and one that is often considered to be the best movie of all time, because of its influence and incredibly audacious vision, opened up a world of post war depression. A world of ruined buildings and unemployed workers. It was honest. His other masterpiece, perhaps his most depressive and heartbreaking one, Umberto D. manages to explore what De Sica left out of Bicycle Thieves.

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An entire nation protesting.

Umberto D. is a hard watch. We witness as the ground crumbles under an old man’s feet. The world, the city of Rome, the universe, are all quickly changing, and not for the better. Umberto is struggling to survive, eating off the rests of food, sleeping in a tiny room, selling anything of value that he possesses, begging his so called friends for just a dime. His only companion? A sweet, intelligent dog. As we witness a few days in Umberto’s life we start to realize that Umberto’s story is the story of a whole nation, a whole underground world that is still there. We don’t see it. But it’s there. Poverty, starvation, loneliness and death. Umberto wanders around the crowded streets of post war Rome, in search of something, someone.

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Honest men are hard to find.

De Sica, like a true reporter with the eye of an eagle, shines a light on the Italian nation. A nation of poor men and women, of rich and privileged selfish people, of homeless dogs and pregnant young girls. Who would have dared to make a movie like this at that time? Umberto is not just an individual. He’s only used as an example by the filmmaker to paint a tragic, depressive, grim image. The camera tortures us with the old man’s presence. It squeezes him, it works him over and doesn’t let go. Sometimes it almost feels like we’re supposed to be on the side of those who take advantage of Umberto and his beloved dog. We’re forced to watch. We’re forced to breathe and struggle alongside the poor old man. You don’t have to like it, says De Sica, but you must think about it. Because yes, the cinematic screen can be a prison sometimes. You feel compelled to watch the moving image, and yet you also want to get away, go for it and run. De Sica’s movie is like a prison cell. You can’t find the keys to unlock it. You become his prisoner.

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The dog, a vagabond creature, is Umberto’s only love. A dying breed.

Umberto, played as usual (in De Sica’s movies) by a non professional actor, is our unwanted hero. Carlo Battisti, the actor and protagonist, brings the raw credibility, the touch of dirt a movies like this desperately needs to deliver its heavy message. We get a taste of a real poor sob walking the streets of Rome in the late 1940s. He’s our hero. He’s our leader. Battisti with his looks, his powerlessness, his innocence and desperation in his eyes, delivers one of the great performances in the history of motion picture. When he begs for money, we sense the humiliation in his gestures. A man, who maybe once upon a time was some kind of an important figure, a hard worker and bread winner, now stands on the street with his hand stretched out and begs for money. He becomes one of the many bricks in a huge brick wall.

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Humiliation.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you deliver a punch to the gut. By directing and staging what people struggle to see on a daily basis. By delivering what most of us refuse to believe.

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Little Man, Big Picture

Tarkovsky strikes again. I finally got through his final movie, the Swedish language film The Sacrifice, the last work of his released in 1986 right before the filmmaker’s premature death.

Tarkovsky is someone who I consider to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and perhaps, of all time. His films resemble slow, majestic, mature poems. His characters represent themes. His settings represent character and emotion. The Sacrifice is the prime example of what a Tarkovsky film is like. It is a film about a man celebrating his birthday with his family when he discovers that World War III has erupted on that exact day. The man, played by Erland Josephson, used to be a poet, an actor and is now a journalist who  in order to avert the apocalypse decides to give to God everything he values in life. Therefore he will make a sacrifice. His life, his family, his home. Everything will turn upside down.

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Great fear.
The film is very slow paced. Hell, there are only around 100 shots in the whole movie compared to some action sequences nowadays that consist of 100 shots in a span of 4 minutes. Tarkovsky’s long slow tracking shots set the tone right from the start. One of my favorite opening scenes: the man stands by a Japanese tree, trying to support the plant and prevent it from being cut down by the merciless wind. A child joins him, his son. They tie the tree safely and begin to walk home. The man talks about history, poetry and soon is joined by an old friend. They continue to debate and quote great poets, mostly Shakespeare. The man recalls his acting days. Time has passed. The man knows it. Every truth, every secret about this man’s life we learn through carefully composed and staged shots. Sometimes they’re poetic, and sometimes they’re plain haunting. But that’s Tarkovsky for those who haven’t yet seen his work: the director creates visual peace and harmony in order to get through the incoming chaos and pain. His movies feel like tormented souls wrapped in beauty and serenity.

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What do you make out of this?
The Sacrfice is no exception. The movie feels like a tribute not only to Tarkovsky’s son (mentioned in the credits) but also to the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, someone whose movies always relied heavily on dialogue and wordplay and scene blocking. it is a loving tribute from one filmmaker to another. And yes, Tarkovsky does put a lot of words into this film, mainly long monologues and sudden bursts of dialogue when the family is involved. However, words are just words, for Tarkovsky imagery is the only thing that counts. It’s not even about symbolism. It’s about the movement, the colors, the sounds, the slow passing of time. Tarkovsky plays with the lighting, with the sound effects of water dripping and fire burning, with the patient montage of every scene. Nothing feels forced. Everything seems to flow naturally and that is the point The Sacrifice makes. There is peace in disaster, in death and in destruction we just have to decide which side we are on. Do we lose our mind just like the protagonist? Or do we fight through it like the boy?

Tarkovsky never gives answers to his audience. He lets it flow. Like water.

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Losing your mind can be dangerous.
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It really can.
 

 

Double Date

What happened to arthouse films with a meaning? With a sense of criticism and real, raw courage in telling stories no one wants to see? You see, there was a time when directors had extraordinary visions; they could look into the past, the could look into the future, they could even look inside the soul of a human being. Directors like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman breathed cinema and lived through it with the help of their own ideas, their own little worlds. They were recognized as leaders of a new cinematic wave. Fellini was the head of neo-realism, while Bergman led the Swedish new wave. These were two giants that up to this day remain glorified as two of the best filmmakers to have ever walked the planet. So why is it, that their fellow filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, didn’t get as much recognition? For one, Antonioni painted mature, depressing and honest portraits of our society, of the relationships between humans in an age of machines and robots. He explored what others weren’t capable of exploring. What others weren’t capable of understanding. Scorsese praised Antonioni’s L’Avventura as the greatest film ever made and yet I’m not here to talk about L’Avventura, but its sequel, a very key part to his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” – La Notte (1961).

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The guilty protagonists.

La Notte is one of those movies that you probably never heard of and yet you have no idea how important it was for the evolution of the present day cinema. It was a new take on alienation and fading relationships. It was a testament to our powerlessness in the face of haunting feelings and emotions, usually crushed by our surroundings and the omnipresent role of technology played in our daily lives. The performances of the great Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and the one and only, Monica Vitti, all add up to a story about a married couple that’s oblivious to its crumbling relationship. The couple consists of Giovanni Pontano, a rookie writer and intellectual, and his wife, Lidia. Once they’re bored with their own lives, they’ll go and meet the mysterious Valentina Gherardini at a very special party.

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Giovanni.
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Lidia.
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And the mysterious force that is Valentina.

Antonioni’s films were always about something more than just what’s on screen. Sometimes even the director himself wouldn’t know what his movie was about until he entered the editing room to put the whole thing together. And yet, once you see the title card that reads “FINE” (The End), you will immediately know that you’ve witnessed something spectacular, something deep and meaningful that can only be the work of a bravado filmmaker and a master at his craft. With Antonioni it doesn’t matter if it’s his early works or his latter ones, you will feel honored to have watched a movie made by one of the greats.

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A hypnotized society.

La Notte is all about spaces. It’s about crumbling spaces. Everything you see doesn’t mean a thing when love is absent. Antonioni’s camera is always moving, switching to various angles and compositions. It is like an opera, small on the outside, but once you hear it, once you see the whole thing being rehearsed and played in front of an audience your jaw will drop. That’s how Antonioni directs his movies. The actors in all of his films must keep moving. Their movements can be fast, slow, it doesn’t matter. The actors will keep moving until the climax when usually everything is still, or silent (like in Antonioni’s later Zabriskie Point, seconds before one of the loudest explosions in cinema history). In fact, Antonioni directs La Notte in a very specific fashion: he starts off from inserting the characters into a busy, vast, humongous location, in this case the city of Milan. We witness as our characters try to find themselves and resolve their problems in the city where there is not enough space for truth and self discovery. That’s when they is a transition location-wise. The characters are invited to a party in a villa situated right outside of Milan. It is a place of lust, excess and wealth. Everything that haunts us and disturbs us about the two protagonists will be exposed at this very party.

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Giovanni’s vision.
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Lidia’s vision.

I will not go into detail as to what exactly happens. That is not my objective. That is for you to discover. However, I want to point out a few things that stand out to me. Giovanni and his wife are presented in the beginning of the movie as two people who are driven by something. They seem to share similar views and values. They visit a sick friend at the hospital. A friend that is slowly dying of cancer. A friend that used to be madly in love with Lidia and yet she chose Giovanni over him. As soon as the couple exits the hospital room, they go different ways. Antonioni isn’t interested in pointing out their differences together. They are always separated, in order to make their personalities and the problems they carry with them stand out in the viewer’s eye. Giovanni is tormented by the sudden burst of fame he achieved after having published his first book. Meanwhile, Lidia wanders around the empty streets of Milan on a hot summer afternoon. Giovanni looks for isolation in his spacious apartment. Lidia looks for isolation in the deserted outskirts of the industrial city. Giovanni is being watched by his neighbor from a distant window. Lidia is being watched by a group of boys looking for a fight around the block. Antonioni presents his characters in contrast with a white washed wall, a car, a lamp post or even a set of fireworks exploding in the sky. He translates feelings and distorted memories into objects, landscapes, street geometry. His characters are never free, they always feel trapped in a maze created by the director on purpose. His purpose is to expose their weakness and show their true colors.

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Giovanni’s strange encounters.
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Everybody’s looking for love.

Monica Vitti, an actress who’s worked on four different Antonioni projects, adds a feeling of the supernatural with her appearance as the mysterious Valentina. She is the woman, or better yet, the creature that changes everything for the married couple. Her presence is felt as the presence of a surreal character in a material world. She is a troubled woman that looks for salvation in Giovanni’s arms. She causes trouble and at the same time backs off when it’s time for her to go. She appears from nowhere and at the end fades into black. Is she really there? Antonioni doesn’t give us a straight answer. He is more interested in exploring the change in the relationship between Giovanni and Lidia after that one magical night. Magical or nightmarish? We will never know. Antonioni’s characters usually rise from the ashes and end in flames, in order to be born again.

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Valentina slowly goes away.

La Notte is no exception. It is a study of society, of modern love and our distorted understanding of memories. It is an interesting take on the reasons why people decide to live together, to love each other. Giovanni and Lidia have nothing to live for and yet they feel compelled to force themselves on one another just so they don’t have to face the scary sense of loneliness. Antonioni’s movies were meant to be that way. Powerful. Towering. Small. That is his magical trick. That’s why he’s a master. He could build an adventure with just a bunch of sticks and stones.

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Is there hope?
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Well, is there?

 

To Be a Perro

Cruelty. Today’s subject matter will be cruelty portrayed in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut — Amores Perros. For some this movie can be tough as hell. Who doesn’t cringe at scenes that consist of bloody dog fighting? Who doesn’t cringe expecting the worst after the movie’s opening title: Life’s a Bitch?  No dogs were harmed in the making of this picture is the first disclaimer that appears on screen. Deal with that. Iñárritu, before entering the world of Hollywood and becoming one of the only three directors to win back-to-back Oscars for best directing, did at first make his small debut in Mexico. Small but effective, and considered to be one of the best directing debuts in the history of cinema and one of the best foreign language movies ever made. Ladies and gentlemen, this movie opened up doors that no one dared to open. To blend cruelty with love and despair? Art. Amores Perros has a heart and a razor sharp machete.

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The punisher and the punished.

Mexico City. A place where anything can happen. A place where you either wear a gun or make money off your dog’s death. A place where dreams are kept in a cage and all you can do is ceiling gazing. The lives of three people will collide after a horrendous car accident. There is blood involved. But no matter how deep we delve into the depths of physical pain and loneliness, Iñárritu will always observe the omnipresence of love. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Biutiful, The Wolf of Wall Street), enhances the light, the grain of the picture, the bright colors that highlight the life on the filthy streets. The music goes from heavy Mexican rap to the delicate chord strumming songs composed by the great Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) because that’s the essence of life: it is a bitch that can either bite or caress. You don’t get to choose. The characters sure don’t. Octavio, El Chivo and Valeria sure don’t. They know cruelty more than anyone.

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Octavio and his love. A love worth fighting for.

Octavio, played by the up and coming Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Motorcycle Diaries) is a young man who wants to get out of this hell hole. His older brother is a punk and a robber, and Octavio is in love with the brother’s wife, Susana. It is only a matter of time before Octavio finds out how to make money for his escape as quick as he can: dog fights. Life forces this young man to rely on the pain of his pet in order to get away from all this evil around him. He’ll take Susana and the baby with him. Plain and simple. Or maybe not. You see, Octavio’s young man’s dreams are immediately crushed by the ruthless force of life. Octavio embodies innocence, immaturity, inexperience. These are all qualities that make life difficult, that make of life an almost impossible task. Octavio will be forced to crawl into the dark world of drug dealers, gangsters and dog fighters. As the film progresses and Octavio’s story begins to go down along with all the bloody events, Iñárritu slowly unravels the boy’s helplessness. The camera starts to feel detached from the young man. It is not a comforting presence anymore. We feel dirty, involved, touched by Octavio’s struggles.

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Ceiling gazing.

Valeria, on the other hand, is a super model who gets involved with a married man. The two start living together and everything seems possible. Everything seems achievable. Love gives life a shape and form, doesn’t it? Valeria embodies beauty and success. Her whole career has consisted of posing in front of a camera and walking down the stage and accepting beauty awards. That’s all there is to her. But life’s cruel actions will mess this up. Valeria will be victim of the terrible car accident. Valeria won’t be the woman she once was. Her dog, Richie, will jump into a hole in the floor in order to find a lost toy, but he won’t come back. Richie will whimper and scratch against the wooden ceiling that is the floor. Daniel, Valeria’s boyfriend, will go crazy trying to free the dog and get him out to make his girlfriend happy. Richie is a symbol of humanity. Iñárritu won’t let him out until Daniel and Valeria have gone through the painful part of their relationship. It’s a test. And humanity doesn’t give up. It’s always there. Fighting off rats and surviving in the dark. It’s only a matter of time until humanity crawls out, breathing, alive.

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The model – Valeria.

And then there is El Chivo, one of the most impressive characters ever put on screen, played to perfection by Emilio Echevarria. This is a man who has seen it all. He embodies the fading past, the painful weight of memory. El Chivo is a man of experience, once a guerilla fighter, now a paid assassin. He lives the live of a homeless man, surrounded by dogs, his only friends. Whatever happened to him in the past it’s for you to discover. He is father time and his presence feels almost holy and spiritual in some twisted way. He will take care of a dying dog and help the poor beast recover. He will square off and try to make peace between two business men, brothers, at war with each other. He is a force that is mostly felt rather than seen. When he walks down the street he is invisible to the people passing by. And yet, his actions count. Not only to strangers but his long lost family as well. He can take any physical shape or form. He can sport a Marxist beard or walk clean shaven dressed in a smart suit, but he will always be felt. He will always have a say. He will confront life and at the same time he will be life’s servant. That is all i can say about El Chivo. The rest is yours.

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Trying to fix the past is not easy.

Amores Perros is certainly similar to the later Brazilian film City of God. Both are ruthless depictions of life on the street. However, City of God, as brilliant as it is, works much better as a documentary. It serves cold facts and chews on a plot that has not much to offer in terms of analyzing the bigger picture. It is as bloody as Amores Perros but it does not work as well as the latter does. Iñárritu paints with blood and emotions. For him life is a bitch because we are not powerful enough. We will never be. We want to be but that is highly unlikely to happen. The three intersecting stories of Octavio, Valeria and El Chivo offer the viewer the essence of life. Love, anger, revenge and the bitter taste of past mistakes make of life a cruel bitch. A bitch that will always prevail. Only El Chivo will walk this earth forever.

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The omnipresent guardian.

Why Take a Chance

Today’s topic: rewatch value. How many times can we watch a certain movie? Is enough, enough? Some people like to watch a movie only once and then they’re done with it. Boom. It’s over. Others can watch the same one time after time and still be entertained. Me? Well, let’s say that when a movie is a favorite of mine, I tend to watch it on special occasions. Sometimes I’m afraid it might get worse, it might get boring, I might find some flaws to it. A movie like There Will Be Blood, what I call my top movie, is something I’ve probably watched only five times in my life. It’s so perfect and so rich in its intensity that I wish it wouldn’t change. Hopefully it never will. Then what kind of movie do I like to watch every now and then and still find it refreshing, thought provoking and above else, entertaining? For me it’s none other than Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). A lot of viewers tend to call it a Goodfellas spinoff, a simple minded sequel. Well, let me tell you. It’s not. And that’s its secret; it’s a whole other animal.

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Boom! Right from the start.

The debaucheries of East Coast mobsters, Hollywood divas and Mid West con men that would take place in Las Vegas in the late 1970s and early 80s are known to the world. In fact, the Las Vegas of those times doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s a family place, a Disneyland for adults  and a paradise for plastic surgery freaks. But back then, oh boy. It was the capital of money. Everything moved from it and through it, creating money links across the globe. Foreigners would fly in rich and fly out dry poor in the matter of hours. People were willing to lose it all. Because why not? It’s Vegas. Scorsese, after partnering up for the second time with Goodfellas author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, decided to make his last ride (until 2002’s Gangs of New York) in the depths of violence. Believe it or not, even old man Marty decided he needed a break from all that blood, all that beating, stabbing, baseball-bat clubbing. But was it worth it. You see it’s one thing to say “I’m going to direct a movie about excess and glamour” and another really do it. Many have tried and many have failed, the one that comes to mind is Baz Luhrmann and his constant need of excessive production design in fairy tale movies like Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby with a mediocre result. Making the viewer feel the incredible amounts of money, the smoke filled casino lounges, the wind blowing from the sands, it’s an art. An who better than the one and only Martin Scorsese?

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What more do you want? Lights, smoke, money, excess, violence. It has it all.

The thing is: it’s not a perfect film. It’s flawed. There are minor issues with the editing, some of the sound mixing, and even some of the special effects look dated. But — the way it’s made, that outdated feeling it carries, it’s what makes it stand out. In it’s structure it’s a very simple movie: a voice-over, a flashback in its entirety, a lot of inserts and music. Because that’s what makes it a Scorsese picture. It’s simple, small but at the same time it’s larger than life. Every time i watch I pick on something that I’d never noticed before; Joe Pesci’s character chewing on the cuticle of his right thumb (the real life gangster he plays reportedly really did that out of habit), the constant overlapping of a never ending soundtrack (Scorsese goes from Bach to The Rolling Stones), the eye-popping cinematography (where every dominant character in a particular scene is marked with a streak of sunlight), and above all – the comedic touch. Because every gangster movie we see nowadays is plain serious, dreadful, wanting to prove to the audience how cruel and merciless those ugly gangsters really are. What these movie directors forget, and Scorsese doesn’t it – is that everything in life has a comedic side to it. Gangsters will quarrel over anything, they’ll spit into a club sandwich that goes straight to a local policeman, they’ll have genuine fun torturing a guy, they’ll stick ice-picks in his testicles if they feel like it. Forget about rules.

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Wise guys in town.

The secret of this movie lies in the way Scorsese connects with the viewer– the long panning and tracking shots, the extreme close-ups and wipe-outs make it feel closer, more relatable , almost as if we were reading a comic book and following with our eyes every single vignette. Because if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that Casino is an ensemble of quick shots, quick dialogue, therefore quick scenes. The main characters, Ace and Nicky, played respectively by De Niro and Pesci, narrate the story for us like a comic book artist narrates the story by writing clouds of voice-over in the corner of every vignette. It’s engaging, energetic and exciting to watch. It’s one of those movies that makes me feel right at home for an odd reason (there are no gangsters at my place) and still manages to leave me in awe by the ending credits. It’s also the way the characters are portrayed as simple minded fuckos with nothing to give but everything to lose. And they do. From the start, Nicky (Joe Pesci) says: “We fucked it all up.

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Love always comes at a price.

I say this because now gangsters are usually glorified and portrayed as untouchable creatures-gods. With Scorsese, it’s different. He likes mortality, he enjoys that vulnerability, the possibility that you take out a brick from the tower and the tower falls down. The constant pressure and heat these dirty individuals carry with them. It comes to the point that Nicky’s banned from all casinos in town and has to move out to the desert, 60 miles away from Vegas, and still finds himself under constant surveillance by the Federal sons of bitches. We don’t see him go guns blazing in the middle of the day. No, we see him the way he was. A small tough guy, walking around the desert covering his mouth so that the FBI lip-readers can’t tell what he’s saying. It’s that “the world watches you” feeling that makes Scorsese’s gangster movies stand out. They are not epics and they will never be because they do not romanticize that kind of lifestyle, they don’t show clean getaways like The Godfather, they are dirty pieces of art that will stay forever with those particular viewers, that have the guts for it.

So as usual, hats off Mr. Scorsese. You will always be the only one who can make a cup of coffee look interesting.

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The light of truth – the bosses have the final say.

The Creator’s Hands

Today’s topic: the world of The Revenant. When I think about it, I come to the conclusion that cinema is divided into two categories: movies and films. Movies can be manipulated, changed, edited, cut and re-shot. Films, on the other hand, are made out of stone; once they’re done, they’re done, they’re rock solid and they stay forever. Nothing can change them, nothing can touch them. They are confessions, tales of truth, parables that will guide future generations in hopefully the right direction. The Revenant is a film. You look at it and you are fully aware that you’re not reading a comic book, you’re not playing a video game, you are watching a film. Why is that? What makes it so colossal and epic? Its immense, cruel, beautiful world.

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Looking for answers.

Man vs Nature has been the topic of many directors’ filmographies such as Werner Herzog’s (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God), Andrei Tarkovsky’s (Andrei Rublev), and Akira Kurosawa’s (Dersu Uzala). Their works were epic in form yet intimate in scope. Their protagonists fought fear, greed and most of all they tried to prevail against nature. Same thing goes for The Revenant? Not quite. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the master behind such revolutionary works like Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman, has crafted an epic tale of survival based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who in 1823, in the Rocky Mountains territory, was brutally attacked by a Grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions. This stubborn son of a bitch battled his way through waterfalls, frozen lakes, forests and mountains, crawling for 300 miles in order to find and kill the men who betrayed him. As many viewers noted, in most cases sounding rather disappointed, the film has a very simple plot. Sometimes, we tend to forget that our world is not that complicated. We’re not masters of the universe. We’re just tiny creatures who happen to live in a big world. Everything we do is rather simple; what we call ambition is usually nothing but instinct. We set ourselves a goal, and slowly, slowly we go for it. The Revenant is about that.

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Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, murderer, thief and a man with a broken heart.

The setting: Rocky Mountains (although shot in Alberta, Canada, and Argentina), near the Missouri River, Indian Territory, 1823. The protagonists: fur trappers working for a fur trading company, Arikara tribesmen, Pawnee tribesmen, French renegades… and nature. We’re presented with a very primitive world; a world where everything comes at a price, be it a scalp or a buffalo skin.  Every man works for himself. No one sees the bigger picture. Everything is driven by hatred, anger, and yes, revenge. Why shouldn’t it be so simple? All of this still applies to this day and age. We haven’t made such incredible progress; wars are still fought over who has more money, more oil, more power. Kidnappings still happen in the name of ransom and revenge. Corruption still exists because of our primitive instincts. So why complain? The world of Hugh Glass at least doesn’t have skyscrapers, tanks, war missiles and drug cartels. It’s a world where you can still smell the morning grass, where you can hear the wolves howl, where you can walk through the wildest of all places and not be disturbed by poachers and tourists.  Iñárritu and cinematographer  Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman) make this world seem closer to us. The viewer can almost touch it. And that’s the beauty of it.

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Everything we do is driven by eternal questions.

Hugh Glass was abandoned, buried alive,  his personal items stolen and his favorite rifle taken. That is what the book (by Michael Punke) recounts and what the true story says, but  Iñárritu found it to be missing something. He said; yes, sure, he probably did it to get back his rifle and fight for his honor, but I want to add something to it. That’s how Hugh Glass becomes a father. A father of a Pawnee boy, his half-breed son, named Hawk. Because fatherly love is also a basic human instinct. A mother and a father are willing to sacrifice themselves, to walk through hellfire, to fight the devil if that’s what it takes to save their child. Hugh Glass’ son is killed by a man called Fitzgerald (played by a superb Tom Hardy who creates one of the most human and vulnerable villains of all time). And that’s when Glass loses everything he had, everything he lived for. Everything he ever wanted. It’s a wake-up call that whispers into his ear “keep breathing, crawl out of your grave and fight”. That’s what he does. His heart painted black with hatred and thirst for revenge pushes him to face the brutality of nature, the mercilessness of a world where man has no say over who gets to live and who gets to die.

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You’re my son…

The world of Glass is simple, yes but it’s also emotional. There is love, friendship, sacrifice. The flashbacks that recall his Pawnee wife, a better life, a peaceful tepee, times when everything seemed so magical, tell us that there is more to this character than what we see. In these dream sequences we see Glass contemplate the unexpected. He studies the beautiful, majestic nature. Nature that makes it possible for him to breathe and walk, love, desire. He understands that in nature, there is no enemy, only an ally, a mother that watches over him at all times. Perhaps we don’t see a God, but we sense that out there, in the blue sky, there is something that makes the rain so wet, that makes the snow so cold, that makes the rays of sunlight so warm. There is a force that rules this brutal jungle of animals, this world that we find so savage and inhuman. This world that we try to tame. Why tame it if we can respect it? Why cut off a branch when we can water it? Why trap a butterfly when we can watch it fly in our garden? Why kill a forest when we can admire its magnificence? The Revenant, with its beautiful use of natural lighting and on-location production, is a reminder that everything we have we owe it to something much bigger than money. Much larger than our own ambitions. Something invisible that we can only feel once we submerge ourselves like Hugh Glass. Once we start to crawl in the dirt. Only then.

Only then we will find that ‘something’ we’ve all been looking for.

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Once you start breathing, you just can’t stop.

 

 

King of Independence

Today’s topic: the man who keeps independent filmmaking alive.  In an era where Hollywood blockbusters have taken over every big cinema theater in every country, independent cinema is starting to take a new turn and progress with time. Think about it, back in the day some of the biggest names were making movies for themselves instead of making them for big time producers. Quentin Tarantino himself started off by directing Reservoir Dogs with initially a budget of a mere $30.000 and then raised it with the help of actor Harvey Keitel to a more impressive but still low $1.5mln, this way creating what is hailed today as “the greatest independent film of all time”. The Coen Brothers made their first few movies – Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – with a just few bucks using either at the time unknown actors (Nicolas Cage, John Turturro)  or washed up stars like Gabriel Byrne. Sure, other directors like veteran Michael Haneke, newcomer JC Chandor, Lisa Chodolenko, David Gordon Green, Lynne Ramsay are all skillful players of the same trade, but it seems like there is one voice that has done nothing but serve cinematic gems in a day where movies are usually overstuffed or overcooked with  clichés and banalities. His tiny filmography gives us a glimpse of a man whose name someday will resonate across all audiences and whose signature will be visible in every book that belongs to film literature. His name is Jeff Nichols.

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No fancy suit and tie, no director’s chair, plain T-shirt. This is Jeff Nichols.

The boy from Little Rock, Arkansas, grew up to become a true master at his craft, a young mind who sees what other choose to ignore. His filmography of just three films (other two coming out in 2016) has had a huge impact on movie buffs and the way we think about independent filmmaking. Nichols chooses topics that are easy to relate to and makes them much more profound than what we’d expect. His debut, the 2007 Shotgun Stories, about family members fighting each other, gave critics such as the late mighty Roger Ebert a reason to take an eye off Hollywood for a moment and focus on something smaller, more delicate but just as dynamic. Nichols’ choice of settings is very particular and probably very personal to the director: the American countryside. Again, what other directors choose not to look at, Nichols prefers to study under a microscope. Cornfields, abandoned farms, ruined backyards, outdated cars, conservative communities, it’s all there. The environment his movies are wrapped in is unpredictable, hostile, presenting a tough life for any age and gender. It’s the poverty and the thirst for a better life in a better place that is unreachable, which make the viewer swallow every bite of his tasty food with great difficulty. It’s the raw images that Nichols throws in the audience’s face. However, it’s not a grim vision. There is also a lot of good in his movies; fatherly love, friendship, parents’ devotion, sacrifice. There is always something worth fighting for.

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A family on the edge of destruction – Shotgun Stories.

Nichols’ camerawork is steady. The movements are controlled, there is no rush in them, no shaking, the images he captures are almost a photo album filled with beautifully composed photographs. In his, in my opinion, best movie – 2011 Take Shelter – Nichols tells the story of a blue collar worker, a loving family man (played by Nichols’ friend and regular collaborator, the great Michael Shannon) who starts to have nightmares about an apocalypse, which to him becomes a reality. His goal? To save his family; his sweet wife (Jessica Chastain in top form) and his hearing-impaired daughter. Nichols manages to turn family love into a vehicle of danger and conflict. The man begins to build a storm shelter in the backyard, hurried by the dark visions that slowly start to take over his mind, making him a victim of his own fears and fantasies. It’s a small idea that takes over the screen, and turns into a giant, menacing vision of a society, which can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The scenes where the husband, Curtis, sits down at the dinner table with his beautiful wife, Samantha and his daughter, Hannah, are the centerpiece of the action. Nichols chooses not to let the outside world creep into the plot, but rather mask a possible danger with the help of a loving unit – the family. What Curtis sees, hears and says at the dinner table, is what motivates him to drive further into the direction of insanity. Yes, it’s what it is. A brilliant example of minimalistic cinema bashing our heads in.

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Your family is worth making you lose your mind – Take Shelter.

Nichols as a writer. Not only can he direct a tense scene with great ease and impressive simplicity but he can write too. Every character he creates is someone that feels so close to us, and yet so distant. A scary familiarity. That’s the case for his third and up until now, last movie – 2012 Mud. This time the writer/director explores the ruined villages located on the edge of the Mississippi. A merciless land where you either you make your living out of the river, you drown in it along with your debts. The titular Mud, is played by Matthew McConaughey (before the “McConaughey age” started, in some way Nichols introduced him to Oscar success), a square jawed, dirty man whose past is as mysterious as the fact that he lives on a boat trapped on top of a tree located on a river island. Mud is friendly and smokes a lot, and the only people he trusts to form a friendship with are teenage boys Ellis and Neckbone. Mud’s slurred speech and short sentences make of him a ghost, someone who may be there or may not, someone who isn’t entirely real. But Mud is, trust me. Nichols writes a friendship for the ages, three different individuals working on the same objective: take the boat off the tree and then… go on an adventure. It’s almost a romantic ballad, because Mud is looking for his old love that’s gone missing. As Nichols unwraps Mud’s past in front of our eyes we can’t help but ask for more.  And in the end, it’s all worth asking.

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Three lives connected by a river – Mud.

Nichols may be someone who prefers to stay low-key, work on small productions and shoot on a limited budget, but his stories are bigger than life and filled to the brim with raw truth. He’s an artist whose work is unique and very personal, both qualities that are very rare and precious in a world of mindless Marvel movies and cheap television. One day, his name will be cited in film classics. Maybe not. Nichols doesn’t make movies for that. He makes them to put a smile on his own face. That’s admirable.

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He’ll keep doing what he’s doing, ride on.

Coyote

Today’s topic: the scariest film I’ve ever seen. Nope, don’t count on hearing anything related to the Horror genre. Of course early Horror movies were revolutionary in the way they managed to effectively stun the audience with their complex visual effects, at the time they were impressive filmmaking achievements. Movies like Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween gave birth and later on inspired hundreds of flat sequels and hideous follow-ups, losing their magical scary touch. They feel outdated. And yes, as an avid cinephile I waited for a scary non-Horror to appear on screen. I waited. And I waited. Finally, last year, it hit the mark. I found it – Nightcrawler. 

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Every man has to learn. Lou’s a fast learner.

Not only my favorite film of last year but also a film that has become one of my top personal favorites. What’s so scary about it? Nothing, besides the main story, that of a petty thief who discovers night-crime journalism as a way of making money. With the help of a camcorder and a police scanner he goes anywhere where blood is spilled. Ain’t that a kick in the head? His name is Louis Bloom, he prefers Lou, and he’s a sociopath. Now, now, he’s not a psycho. He doesn’t take baths in a tub filled with blood and doesn’t go around shooting presidents. He’s a sociopath with a camera, and he’s ready to sell whatever he catches, be it a bloody stabbing or a home invasion, it doesn’t matter. That’s what’s so scary.

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You just need to be ready. Fasten your seat belt, please.

I know I’m not here to make a review out of this movie, but for those who haven’t seen it I have two words: Jake Gyllenhaal. Jake is a coyote, fit and skinny, his eyes haunting, his veins pulsating. He is Lou Bloom and he is a sociopath. Lou’s fascinated with his new job, first a bit untrained and unprofessional, with a banged up car and a cheap camcorder with no microphone. But it’s Los Angeles, right? Anything’s possible for people like Lou. What am I getting at? Lou learns police codes by heart, finds a naive assistant (a great Riz Ahmed) who’ll do anything for a few bucks, buys modern equipment, a new car and above all, he forms a business relationship with a worn out local news director (Rene Russo you got it) who is ready to pay any price just to keep her name alive in the news industry. For some the setting alone might seem scary: night-time Los Angeles, no Hollywood Boulevard, no sunny avenues and great looking palm trees; instead, a dark, claustrophobic polluted bloody machine that is the land of gold for hungry coyotes who wish to feast on rotten cadavers. Unlike the overcrowded streets in  Taxi Driver’s New York,  here the streets of Los Angeles are almost empty, the wind free to blow wherever it wants to. A perfect place for nocturnal animals.

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Making business is always a pleasure.

The music. The music by James Newton Howard is for a fact, creepy. You may ask why. It depicts Lou’s state of mind. Whenever he’s angry, the music changes. Whenever he’s onto something, the music changes. Whenever he goes crazy, the music changes. The unnerving feeling that we’re inside a sick individual’s mind will give anybody some proper goose bumps. And why not? Lou smiles when he records a victim. Blood makes him excited up to the point where he starts treating the material he’s shooting as a form of art. A car accident is a set for him, a dead body the actor. Lou’s the director, and a hell of a one too. We witness as Lou, with great exhilaration, notices that the police cars haven’t yet arrived, and decides to ‘modify’ the accident scene for artistic purposes, moving a cadaver from one side to another, adjusting the lifeless’ hands, straightening the cold legs, and finally getting to the top of a curb and filming it, adrenaline pumping through his eyeballs. That’s what crime-journalism is about. That’s what this movie is about – people who become animals and yet go unnoticed, hiding in the dark, away from the light.

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He’ll do anything in the name of professionalism.

Dan Gilroy’s first attempt at directing is spot on. It’s simplistic but effective, because again, it impersonates Lou’s persona: unpredictable. Floating across the neon lights of LA at night, switching to postcard views and cutting to fast paced car chases, Gilroy encapsulates the essence of a blood soaked world that we see every single day in the news, and almost every single time we ignore it. A world where anything and everything can be made up from a ‘carjacking crime wave’  to a ‘stabbing pollution’. A world where advertisements are taken too seriously. A world where only with the help of a camcorder and a police scanner can we succeed in making a name for ourselves.

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When Lou smiles, you better smile along.

The scariest part? The irony. The script is filled with past faced dialogue, machine gun comebacks and tasty ideas, painting a grim picture with a cherry on top – irony. The whole movie pokes fun in a very cruel way at who we are and how we deal with things. It pokes fun at a society that believes too many theories and disregards the truth. Coyotes like Lou go unnoticed and end up with a full belly. It’s  the raw truth that scares me, personally. It’s the thought that people like Lou walk the streets like the rest of us. Lou Bloom is a monster but a monster you learn to root for. Yes, that’s right. Every time I watch it, by the end of the film I find myself cheering for Lou because he’s got everything planned out, he’s always compact, neat and precise. He never blinks, never sweats over anything. That’s what makes him so haunting – the fact that  we don’t see him break aside from a riveting few seconds, when after a flop of a night without any headline material, the man confronts his reflection in the mirror, yelling and shattering the glass to pieces. No worries. He’s got everything under control, that’s the thing. Can we call him a criminal? No. He doesn’t kill anyone. He doesn’t lift a finger nor hurt anyone. Lou is simply at the right time, at the right place, with the right ideas. He’s the man.

 

“Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”

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I will never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. Goodnight.