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.

They Worship Everything and Value Nothing

Originality.  What is originality? For starters, it’s an idea.  A unique idea that tackles different subjects in a unique, personal way.  This year in particular has been a blessing to original movies such as Elle by Paul Verhoeven, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and even Everybody Wants Some!! by Richard Linklater.   We live in an age where indie movies rule the awards’ shows and rock the box office.  Manchester by the Sea, this year’s heartbreaker is racking up awards and it was produced by Amazon (!).  But I’m here to talk about a movie that has been on my mind ever since I saw it twice in the theater: LA LA LAND, ladies and gentlemen.  The best movie of 2016.  A movie so fresh, so vibrant, exciting and original that you just want to embrace it and kiss the screen.  At least, that was me when the credits rolled.  Should you see it? Yes. Don’t like musicals?  See it, won’t be a problem.  Why?  Here we go;

Musicals have shaped the way we understand music in cinema.  Musicals allowed viewers to contemplate beautiful set designs and jaw dropping dance sequences in movies such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Guys and Dolls.  Their favorite stars, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, were given the opportunity to showcase their full range of musical talent and when their movies hit the theaters it was a huge show.  But eventually the whole formula wore down by the end of the 60s.  Probably the last successful musical (and it was very unexpected at the time) was the best picture winner of 2002, Chicago.  Then everything felt silent until a couple of years ago with the release of the atrocious remake of Annie, which failed both critically and commercially.  Now, two years later, almost three, and La La Land is in pole position to win the Oscar for best picture of the year.  And why is that?  Why does all of a sudden a musical out of all the brilliant films that came out this year (Silence, Sully, Arrival, Moonlight, Hell or High Water, De Palma; Hail, Caesar! among many many more) come out on top with critical acclaim and financial success?  After all it’s Damian Chazelle’s only second feature film (after the thrilling and just as successful Whiplash) and it doesn’t contain a star studded cast like Chicago did.  Sure, the two protagonists are played by two of the biggest stars of modern day Hollywood but a musical by definition stays a musical and people nowadays are very reluctant toward such an ‘old fashioned’ genre. BUT don’t listen to them. La La Land is a film that uses the musical side in order to make the love story more profound. It doesn’t rely on it. It uses it. Music, in fact, is a perfect instrument, which, if used properly, can play a big role in the delivery of a movie’s message.  We all saw how brilliant Damian Chazelle was in using music in Whiplash as the centerpiece of the story without making it unbearable for us to cope with.  Music was the engine of Whiplash and the reason for the characters’ development.  It inspired and terrorized Andrew (Miles Teller) and eventually made of him an obsessed monster just as it had done years before that with the cruel Mr. Fletcher (JK Simmons).  Now, La La Land, as the title suggests, is a movie about dreams, about confronting fantasy with reality, and about the cost of love and the sacrifice that goes with it.  The two main characters, Mia and Sebastian, represent today’s hidden youth. I say hidden because these are authentic people, who have real interests, needs and ambitions.  They want to live and want to live their lives without anyone telling them as to what to do, something that is rarely seen among today’s young generation.  Music expresses their existence.

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Music is reason. A representation of life.

So why is it so fresh and exciting?  Because it is not a coming-of-age story, it is not a melodrama, it is not a chick-flick, and it is not a comedy.  It is an achievement built on pure love for cinema.  Chazelle, 32, and already one of the very best in the business with a bright future ahead of him, paints the screen with beautiful images that make us recall the old movies, the experience of seeing the film on color and sound, with a rich palette (shot on breathtaking Cinemascope lens), that ranges from dark purple to light red and an endless sea of blue.  It is a celebration of filmmaking. It opens with a musical piece accompanied by an astonishing tracking shot that covers an entire lane on the LA motorway with dancers and stuntmen giving it their all and setting the tone for the rest of the film.  It’s there and then that we meet both characters and we immediately understand what kind of people they are; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a young man who loves Jazz and demands the best out of himself, and then Mia (Emma Stone), a pretty and goofy girl who loves acting more than anything in the world.  They find themselves in similar situations; they are hungry not for success but for personal glory, the feeling of accomplishment, of doing something that they like and that sets them apart from the average Joe with a suitcase and a shirt and tie.  They want to prove themselves. Sebastian’s goal is to save Jazz and Mia’s desire is to express what she’s been bottling up her whole life.  And that is why the use of music is essential.  When the music takes over the true faces of these two young people appear before us and demand our attention.  Their dancing and singing is how they communicate and bond.  At first there isn’t much to their relationship but soon they become lovers of a whole new generation.  They are honest and they fight through a shitstorm of bureaucracy, rules and social norms. Together they become the modern day couple and as we follow them fall in love, we come to the point where we realize that their love is beautiful precisely because it comes at a price and decisions have to be made.  I won’t say much more than that.  Go see it.  All I can say is this; with two breathtaking performances given by two amazing actors, who remind us of the great pairings of the 50s such as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and the direction of a young man who understands music, its power and significance not only in cinema but in real life too, and treats the history of the silver screen with maturity and respect, this musical tackles the subject of dreams, passion, desire and the fragility of love with incredible subtlety and experience.  It doesn’t push its message and it doesn’t try to sell it either.  It is similar to a painting; it allows you to see things only you can see in your own, personal way.

That’s originality.

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Love in motion and color.

And the Oscar goes to…

Today’s topic: this year’s Oscar nominations. Many people tend to ignore the Oscars, simply considering it a celebrity event, and even more people don’t care about Oscar status as a whole. Rightly so. However, it is important to remember that being nominated for or even winning the prestigious golden boy often leads to more possibilities for the ones involved, salary raise, better connections and more responsibilities. It’s a chance for small, indie films that normally would end up going under the radar, to shine and prove the world wrong. It’s a chance for disadvantaged contenders, such as minorities, to become an example for the rest of the industry. Well guess what. The Oscars like to forget about that. Every once in a while they remind themselves like that time when they took a chance at wonder boy screenwriter Quentin Tarantino back in 1995. Or that time they awarded in both acting categories two black actors: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002.  Or even that time they finally recognized Martin Scorsese for his lifelong career handing him the way overdue Oscar in 2007 for The Departed. And sometimes, Oscars manage to reach the unreachable level of stupidity, like last year… and this year.

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After 40 years in the business and countless nominations…

The concept of women winning or even being nominated in a male dominated category is quite rare to say the least in the film industry. After Kathryn Bigelow won best picture and best director for the Hurt Locker in 2010, the Oscar voters decided to take a step back and let the big change fall flat again. Last year, they ignored the talent of Ava DuVernay who directed the mediocre but in directing terms roaring Selma, the story of Martin Luther King and the impact his politics had on the streets in the US. That day they also decided to ignore Oyelowo’s performance as MLK, a convincing and powerful portrayal of a man who found himself cornered by his own decisions and policies. Why? Because in 2014, 12 Years a Slave won best picture. It had to. It sure wasn’t the best picture of that year but Oscar voters couldn’t turn away and ignore it because its message was too powerful. And that was it. No more diversity for the next two years and counting.

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A forgotten duo, DuVernay and Oyelowo.

Have you people heard of Beasts of No Nation? Probably not, since it only came out via Netflix and in a few theaters in the US back in October, but let me tell you: the story of a child soldier, Agu, in an African country who kills in the name of his beloved commander is one of the best films of this year. Under the direction of Cary Fukunaga, the man behind the acclaimed first season of True Detective, this film is one of the most brutally honest portrayals of war I’ve ever seen and yet the Academy decides not to give it a chance because of its online distribution. Shouldn’t movies be about change? About modernization? About heading forward? About exploration? Well, for the voters the answer is NO. Idris Elba, star of the British TV drama Luther, gives a terrifying performance as the black leader who numbs the African youth and manipulates them into thinking he is, in fact, a true god, someone who’ll lead them to glory and make them forget about the past. His mannerisms, his voice, the thick African accent he applies to his own speech, these are all signs of a great actor giving a great performance. Yet it’s not enough for the Academy to recognize him as a possible candidate for Best Supporting Actor. Shame.

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A performance for the ages. Make it justice and watch it.

You’d think then, if the Academy goes white,  it does it in proper style. Not even close. This year’s choices have been cruel. Let Jennifer Lawrence, star of the empty Joy, get her fourth nomination while you ignore Charlize Theron for her incredible performance as Furiosa in Mad Max Fury Road. Why is Lawrence there? Not only was Joy one of this year’s worst films, following every worn-out form of narrative we’ve all seen countless times under David O. Russel’s underwhelming direction, it was also a big office flop. It’s unusual because the Academy tends to go for the big hits. This time it’s the name that counts. Jennifer Lawrence. Enough of her already. After the tough performance she gave in the truly deserving Winter’s Bone, the Academy handed her one for Silver Linings Playbook and nominated her in another head scratching movie, David O. Russel’s American Hustle, making out of a simple twenty year old actress a true Hollywood diva, the highest paid actor in all of the industry with a salary of $26 mln (ironically she speaks out about pay inequality towards women). This celebrity status makes it easier for the Academy because this way they nominate the same famous name all the time and they don’t have to worry about other performances going under the radar. Simple as that, right? Yes, Theron was better. Theron gave in my opinion the best female performance of the year, playing a beautiful character (George Miller’s invention) in a not so beautiful post apocalyptic world. Her shaved head, her robotic arm, her fiery eyes turned what could have been another action blockbuster into an intimate portrayal of human strength and more precisely, women’s strength. However, Oscars like to miss the small stuff, and like to focus on the big stuff: in this case, explosions, real life stunts and roaring action sequences. Well, damn. Shame.

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A real queen.

Okay, now if you like to ignore small stuff why don’t you go for Benicio Del Toro’s career best role as Alejandro in Sicario? Not only did they  choose to ignore the movie as a possible best picture/ best director/ best original screenplay contender; the voters also decided to ignore what is to me and to many reviewers, one of the best revenge driven characters in recent film history. Del Toro went all in, a silent, deadly man who’s suffered too much to tell. A man who’s seen hell and back and doesn’t want to show it. A man who’s set himself an objective. And he’s fighting for it. That too, to the Academy means – nada. No nomination for you, Benicio. It wasn’t fancy enough. Your name hasn’t been so relevant since you played Che Guevara in 2008′ Che, the four hour long biopic of the most revolutionary leader of the twentieth century. These are the brakes, says the Academy. Luckily let’s hope this performance leads Del Toro to take on many more of these complex, tough as hell roles, because he nailed it. That’s that. Shame.

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Next time, Benicio, next time.

Of course, after so many fans and critics felt irritated after The Dark Knight was snubbed for best picture back in 2009,  the Academy decided to make ten slots for best picture nominees instead of five. That way independent movies and even blockbusters like The Dark Knight itself could have the chance to be nominated in that hard fought category with the best of the best. Yeah, not really. Although I have to hand it to the Oscars for giving Mad Max Fury Road and Room a chance to prove the world wrong, the Academy decided to leave two slots empty, nominating only eight movies instead of ten. Was it so hard to decide? Carol, a work of art by acclaimed director Todd Haynes with great performances given by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, a story of a forbidden love in a forbidden age, one of the movies that was considered sure Oscar material has been totally forgotten. Haynes’ direction as well, sadly. Okay, well you’d think they’d go with someone they know and trust. Like Tarantino and his three hour long epic – The Hateful Eight. Guess what, too much violence. Too much blood. Too much profanity. And it all takes place in a stage-like environment. Not too attractive for the voters. They decided to ignore Quentin’s passion for the Western genre, they ignored the artistry in his Sergio Leone inspired close-ups and oddly enough, they decided to ignore his screenplay – a tribute to a whole world that only Quentin knows so much about, and that is the world of movies. The Hateful Eight is a mix of the macho characters of the forties and fifties played by tough guys like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. It’s a mix of Western TV series like Bonanza and Rawhide. It’s his final say to his endless love for The Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Academy doesn’t see it. Well, shame.

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They want Quentin to be more conventional. That’s not going to happen, is it?

Honestly, this year was bad, but there were also tiny bright spots – youngster Brie Larson nominated in the best actress category and old timer Charlotte Rampling nominated in the same one as well. Rachel McAdams, usually considered a sex symbol with movies like The Notebook, Mean Girls and About Time under her belt, was given a chance to prove she can act her heart out with her performance in this year’s Spotlight. The incredible determination in Tom Hardy’s amazing performance as John Fitzgerald in The Revenant was finally recognized by an award show other than the usually reliable BAFTA. That’s good.

Let’s keep in mind. These award shows, like DiCaprio said, are not the reason movies are made. An award is an award, it’s film that stays forever.

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The Revenant sure will stay forever. It’s gold.