Untouchable

Untouchable

Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters  that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers,  without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then  studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse NowHeaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.

tumblr_p3gkbu41VC1qetb0ho1_1280
You will not dare to look away.

When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.

bonfire_contact-0-1080-0-0
The opening to Bonfire of the Vanities sweeps you for 5 entire minutes with the sizzling energy of upper class New York.

Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.

35f4fb875da126e06155b1cc2bf63648
De Palma’s art lies in making something ordinary stand out.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind PsychoVertigoNorth by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.

beginning_carlitosway
A dying man staring right at us, this is Carlito’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.

The-Untouchables-1987-Union-Station
And what about The Untouchables railway station sequence? A mix of Eisenstein and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.

Blow-Out-FEATURED
Sometimes too much is exactly what a film needs.
Advertisements

One Man’s Sins

One Man’s Sins

As the news reports keep popping up on our phones, tablets and TV screens, we can’t help but wonder: “What if something really bad happens? What then? What will the world look like? Will we be the same as now?”
Most of the time the answer is ‘NO’, and film has been known as a medium used to search for answers that we cannot seem to find in the present world. Think about the Mad Max Trilogy and the latest installment by George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a wild, twisted ride into pure hellfire madness. It’s a vision of a world that has crumbled under the weight of mankind and unleashed creatures similar to beasts and demons. It is a comic book vision that represented the mindset of the late 1970s early 1980s; death, injustice and filth. However, the thing that always seemed to bother me about that series of movies is how fictional it is. Its focus is clearly pointed at the action setpieces shot in the Australian desert. We don’t treat it as a film; we treat it as a piece of entertainment.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was soon adapted into a movie back in 2009 and that to me was a game-changer. It brought up real, authentic, current day issues and spat them right into our faces. And as much as I’d like to write about The Road, I’m not going to, because I think there is a little Australian movie that did it even better and went by unnoticed by the general public. The movie I want to talk about is David Michod’s 2014 sleeper, The Rover. It’s an important one, trust me.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-22h50m26s694
Eric.
vlcsnap-2017-05-11-23h56m53s554
Rey.

I’ve been trying to get people to watch The Rover because I strongly believe it’s a landmark in present day independent cinema. When it first came out in Cannes in 2014 it received terribly mixed reviews: there was the side that hated it and the side that loved it. Personally, it took me four sittings to really be able to grasp the genius of this movie. This is by no means an easy watch. It’s an engrossing slow-burner that features a maximum of two pages of dialogue. Let me get to the point. The Rover is a tale of morality and humanity that takes place as the title cards in the opening scene read: AUSTRALIA. TEN YEARS AFTER THE COLLAPSE. Like most post-apocalyptic films it doesn’t quite reveal what happened, what triggered the situation we find ourselves in. The film opens with a wide shot of the Australian wasteland. Silence. We’re in someone’s car and we’re looking at the owner of it, sitting in the driver’s seat, thinking, waiting. This is Eric (a phenomenal Guy Pearce), and he’s our leading man; a wiry, bearded, dirty middle-aged man who’s dressed in khaki shorts and a stained shirt. The world around him is a world of misery and desperation. The only people he meets are male prostitutes and old men sitting in empty bar rooms, hoping for a customer to come in and buy something.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-22h56m04s660
Loneliness.

As playwright David Mamet said: “The secret to any play or film is to have a character that wants something at all costs”, and that is exactly who Eric is. As he sits at the bar counter, three armed men steal his car. We can see in Eric’s eyes that nothing means more to him than that car of his. That’s all he wants. That’s all he cares about. He gets into a rusty truck and starts chasing the three men into the deep Australian wilderness. As the chase progresses, Eric encounters the younger brother of one of the three men. His name is Rey (Robert Pattinson at his finest, yes you heard me) and he’s “an idiot halfwit.” Eric uses Rey in order to find out where Rey’s brother is headed to. Don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t a movie about friendship and enemies who become comrades. There is none of that in the desolate world of The Rover.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-23h18m15s773
It is all about who will draw first.

As the film progresses, the viewer witnesses a moral tale about the fragility of humanity. The world Eric and Rey live in is realistic, unlike the comic book world of Mad Max and the dystopian, horror-like world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The secret of this movie lies in the way it unfolds like a religious parable. The rare spurts of violence are extremely brutal and bloody but at the same time quick and unfocused. The absence of long, deep and meaningful conversations helps build the heavy tone this movie carries throughout its entire runtime.
There is no reason in this world. Random strangers attack our two protagonists without any purpose. The only thing that rules this world is money. US dollars. Worthless paper. Its false value looms over the lives of the scattered survivors of the collapse. It seems as if Eric and Rey are the only individuals untouched by money. What does this tell us about them? They look like everybody else. They behave like everybody else, and yet they seem to be indifferent to any kind of material distraction. Their whole mission is to chase someone who stole Eric’s car. But the mission is not about the car. It’s about what is IN the car. It is something that drives Eric forward, that keeps him from falling into the pit everyone else has already fallen into a long time ago.

vlcsnap-2017-05-12-00h03m03s925
Nothing is more terrifying than an empty world.

What makes The Rover such a compelling film is its complete indifference toward the viewer. The film unfolds without the participation of the viewer, almost as if David Michod, the director, didn’t want us to feel forced to watch it. To me, The Rover is a warning. Eric’s past can be interpreted as the past of a number of people. His incoming personal downfall would mean the downfall of the entire world. Because believe it or not, Eric still believes in something.
There is a scene, when Eric brings wounded Rey to a doctor’s clinic, where Eric enters a neon-lit room situated in the back of the clinic and finds a pyramid of cages containing stray dogs. He sits down, with tears in his eyes, and gazes at the poor animals. There is an understanding between man and beast here, and it shows a side to Eric which he tries to suppress as often as possible because he knows; once you let the world know you got a heart, everyone’s going to jump you and try to tear it out of your chest.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-23h28m01s909
Man’s best friend… trapped.

As they sit around a campfire, waiting to fall asleep, Rey recalls a little girl he killed by accident, and says: “I can’t stop thinking about her.” Now, think about it. In most Hollywood movies this scene would have ended up with Eric telling Rey not to worry about it, try to forget it, move on. The two would grow closer to one another and the movie would suddenly switch tones. But writer-director Michod plays his cards much more realistically, without the blink of an eye he lets Eric spit out the truth: “You shouldn’t. You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. That’s the price you pay for taking it.” After saying this, Eric walks off into the darkness to find a good place to sleep. The irony of this scene lies in the fact that we see Eric kill over half a dozen people without even acknowledging it. He shoots to kill. His act of killing is cold, ruthless and lacking any kind of second thought. His hand is rock steady unlike the hand of young Rey, the hand of an insecure boy who’s yet to see what the world is all about.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-23h42m18s512
Emptiness.

Michod’s camera captures the ruin of both the physical world as well as the psychological one. The slow tracking shots that follow Eric and Rey on their journey are there to shine a light on the scope of the destruction humans are capable of bringing on themselves. It is a slow dive into pure insanity where no laws are met and respected. To me, that’s much scarier than any horror movie out there; the sense of helplessness, despair and decay. The unnerving study of the dark side of humanity is something cinema has contemplated for a long time now. However, filmmakers tend to forget that in order to convey a message you need to show both sides of the conflict. In this case, The Rover deepens the cut by depicting glimpses of hope in Eric’s tired eyes. That’s the key to the lock. Once we learn to understand Eric, we learn to understand how The Rover works. One man’s sins are everybody’s.

That is why I think The Rover can be interpreted as a modern day parable about human vulnerability. It’s a simple story that lacks glamor and fantasy. It rides on grit, toughness… and weakness. The apocalypse of moral values. Emotions are all we’ve got, so what will happen when we lose those too?

vlcsnap-2017-05-12-00h56m33s984
Even the hardest man will fall.

The Gaze

The Gaze

Today I want to talk about the act of looking in film. Looking is perhaps the simplest activity one can do. You just open your eyes, and that’s it – you’re looking. When we see a movie we look at the screen, we look at the characters, we look at the story unfold.
One thing about looking in film is that we often confuse the act of looking with the act of witnessing something. A lot of movies nowadays feel extremely distant, and not because of their plots or the narrative they use, but because they aim to tell a story without needing the participation of the viewer. Witnessing a movie means trying to figure out what’s going on. Usually when people get into an argument on screen we feel detached from their reality. We feel like a bunch of intruders walking into the lives of those strange people. We’re clearly unwanted.
Then there is looking, and looking, if done right, can be the epitome of a true cinematic experience. When we look at a film, at a story, at a moving frame, we’re not viewers anymore. We’re more than that. We’re participants. That is why today I chose Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime film from 1970, Le Cercle Rouge, to try and make an argument about the importance of the act of looking.

vlcsnap-2017-03-19-00h14m11s683
Looking as a key to everything you could ever wish for.

Le Cercle Rouge could be considered by the average viewer a typical crime film with the policeman chasing the bad guys, but trust me. It is more than what’s on the surface. The film’s cast is pure French acting royalty: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte and Andre Bourvil. And the remarkable thing about this cast of actors is that their chemistry does not get in the way of the story. It is not underwhelming and at the same time it is far from overwhelming. They are just there. Doing what they’re paid to do.
However, what stands out the most about these actors is their capability of looking at each other and conveying a thought just with the use of the simple act of looking. When Delon looks at the camera we get reassurance and inner peace.  When Montand looks at a mirror we get insecurity and error. When it is Volonte’s turn we get wit and perseverance. And at last, when Bourvil confronts us with his eyes we get compassion and arrogance.
This film (much like the rest of Melville’s filmography) is mostly based on the physicality of the action that takes place in the unfolding of the story. Le Cercle Rouge has in fact a simple plot, very little dialogue and whenever a character says something, the sentences are very robotic, characterized by quick rhythm and low intonation. Most secondary characters that appear in this movie have very little to say but an awful lot to do: they engage in gunfights, beatings, car chases and manhunts. Melville does not care about character development or inspirational speeches made during the last five minutes. No. What he does care about is telling a story through the use of movement captured on camera. His attention to detail is perhaps only matched by the likes of Bresson and Hitchcock.

vlcsnap-2017-03-19-00h23m11s518
Is there any difference between the power of a cold look and a pointed gun?

In order to present the following scene I’ll just set it up nicely for those of you have yet to watch the film. The three robbers are planning to steal huge amounts of jewelry and diamonds and sell them on the black market to a trusted buyer.  The heist is to take place in a security covered building where every inch of the area is being monitored by cameras, wires and motion detectors. The jewels are hidden inside bulletproof glass vaults. The heist sequence is in theory very basic, but the way Melville manages to sell it to us is remarkable. There is no dialogue for the entire 25 minutes.
Clearly inspired by its French noir predecessor, Rififi, and its earlier Hollywood take, The Asphalt Jungle, Melville’s crime thriller observes the heist taking place not from the perspective of a random bystander or witness (something usually found in the Bourne Trilogy or even in a movie like Captain Phillips) but rather with the eyes of the camera hidden in the far corner of the room.
The lack of any major sound or music during this sequence not only helps in making the action seem smoother and more realistic but it also serves to heighten the tension of each step one of the three robbers take in order to get to the jewels. Each movement comes at a price and as you wait for something bad to happen, Melville drags you into his world by making you observe what most of us would usually consider to be boring, uneventful and uninteresting. It is the simplicity of what you see that makes this entire watch incredibly special and unlike anything you’ll encounter in most crime thrillers of Hollywood production.

vlcsnap-2017-03-19-01h17m10s200
The three robbers in their own little worlds.

Another topic I want to cover is the way the characters interact with one another. Most scenes include only one or two of the main characters together, separating each storyline and creating a sense of alienation within the criminal underworld these characters belong to. Alain Delon’s Corey is the one character we get to observe the most. Delon’s on-screen presence is very demanding and the attention he brings to himself even in scenes where he meets other characters, such as fellow gangsters or mob bosses, is the trademark of this movie. It seems as if he’s always capable of transmitting a certain sense of hostility with little to no effort. When he teams up with Volonte and Montand’s characters, he behaves just as he did when he acted on his own. His dead-pan expression turns the observer into the observed. While the remaining characters often face mirrors and reflections of themselves, and usually they reflect upon the sight of it, Delon is the one who faces the camera more frequently than anybody else without even blinking an eye. As much as we get to look at him we really don’t know if he’s good or bad, or if we should even be rooting for him at all. His gaze is a challenge to the viewer, a pit-stop on the 2h20 long journey this movie has to offer.
Each character we meet on this journey is unaffected by the people around him. What I mean is, the environment does not offer any kind of change. The environment, similarly to the characters, is just there, because it has to be there. There is no sense of palpable change, the atmosphere is the same all the way through and that is perhaps due to the fact that Melville insists on making his viewers pay attention to the physical, material details, rather than the abstract, the spiritual.
It is safe to say that this movie is one of the ‘manliest’ movies ever made because of how well structured it is and simultaneously stripped of any useless (in Melville’s opinion) cinematic layers such as plot, character development and a conclusion.

vlcsnap-2017-03-19-00h19m49s080
The challenge.

The act of looking is a deadly weapon. You see the right things and you immediately have the upper hand. Melville says, ‘Trust me.’

vlcsnap-2017-03-19-00h24m31s305
Who’s got the upper hand now?

 

Bond Flop

Bond Flop

There is something that I cannot stop thinking about and that is:

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH SPECTRE?

The anticipation for this one was huge.  At first, it was announced as the last Bond film of the epic saga that started all the way back in the 60s with Sean Connery.  After having revolutionized the franchise with a more serious approach to the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, Bond was supposedly reborn.  Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and finally Spectre are the films that all gave a new feeling to the name, Bond.  Big time directors like Sam Mendes stepped up to the task and delivered. But not this time. Something about Spectre is incredibly off. It feels cartoonish, tired, pointless and utterly uninspired.

Some main points from my part;

  1. NO CHARACTER ARCH
    – what made Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (in its mediocrity) and Skyfall special is that with the ‘reinvention’ of James Bond as a meaty, grown character was his development. Casino Royale made Bond lose everything he had, everything he loved. Quantum of Solace made him gain his strengths, while Skyfall made him come back to life, fight for what’s his and yes, lose something too.  People became fans of these ‘serious’ Bond films precisely because Bond developed and wasn’t the usual handsome ladies man that cracks a joke and kills the bad guys.  He was vulnerable, he experienced pain and loss. He was one of us.  In Spectre, yes, Bond loves, has memories, has a past, but you don’t feel it pulsating in every frame. In Casino Royale you could feel the threat of losing Vesper at all times.  In Skyfall you could sense the slow passing of M. Here, you have nothing. It’s just Bond solving what should be considered as ‘the ultimate case’, the last riddle, the last piece of the puzzle. It’s what we’ve seen a thousand times before. Same formula, over and over and over.
  2. WOODEN ACTING
    – when James Bond was getting his balls crushed with a rope in Casino Royale we suffered. When M was bleeding to death, we suffered. When Silva was aiming a flintlock pistol at an innocent woman in Skyfall, we felt the tension. What about Spectre? You can feel the actors just not giving a single crap about the movie.  It feels like a side project. You have Craig who publicly announced that he wanted to stop playing Bond after Skyfall was wrapped up, you have Monica Bellucci who probably had nothing better to do, since she is in the movie for what, 6-7 minutes? There is also Ralph Fiennes, who plays the new M this time around. After giving some great, great performances in Grand Budapest Hotel, Hail, Casesar! and A Bigger Splash I don’t blame the man for taking some time off and playing this over-used role of the boss who at first doesn’t trust his agent and then discovers that he should have trusted him from the very beginning. Then you have Christoph Waltz, who as of late has me feeling very unimpressed. It’s always the same sarcastic, sneaky character just with a different name. The only bright spot is the always reliable Léa Seydoux, who is a gem of an actress, who unfortunately is forced to play the cliché character of a Bond chick.  At least she tries to give it some depth, which leads me to….
  3. THE ATROCIOUS SCREENPLAY
    – do I really need to go over this? Look, even the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies had better screen-writing than this movie. At least they had some really funny, sarcastic lines that worked whenever they were given a try, but here… you have FOUR screenwriters working on this project. FOUR. There is no sense of time, there is no link between certain key characters, questions are left unanswered, ending is predictable and uneventful, the whole story is quite simply forced out in order to presumably end this series. It feels like it all leads up to what the writers probably considered the apex of their writing capabilities and that is: “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.”
  4. NO ARTISTIC FREEDOM
      – I give a big thumbs up to Sam Mendes and Hoyte van Hoytema (the cinematographer) for making that first opening sequence in Mexico City work like it does. It looks absolutely brilliant; a tracking shot that pans across a mass of people, follows characters around into elevators, passes through doorways, exits through balconies and finally reveals to us what Bond is up to.  It’s great. It’s ambitious and I wish it set the tone for the rest of the movie. It shows who is in charge of the movie. Unfortunately the directorial and cinematographic brilliance doesn’t last very long and you can almost feel the studio’s influence crawling into every frame of it.  No wonder that Mendes announced he won’t be coming back to direct Bond25, if there will ever be one. Mendes’ experimental direction and van Hoytema’s clean, neat images seem too big of a gamble for such a massive Hollywood project that cost around $250 mln. The viewer can easily see when the director is in charge and when the producers are.  Mendes directs from various interesting angles. He moves the camera step by step, he likes silences instead of cheesy soundtracks, he prefers panning rather than cutting. But then again, it’s not his movie. And we know it. The way the story is visually told is the same procedural crap we see on a daily basis.
  5. THE MOST UNUSED BOND VILLAIN
      – Okay, you cast Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain, who is supposed to incarnate the ultimate evil of the franchise. He is the man who’s taken everything from Bond. He’s the one responsible for every tragedy in Bond’s life; M, Vesper, his childhood. He is the devil in a man’s skin. He is the reason for Bond’s thirst to kill. HE IS EVIL. And what do we get? We get this guy who has no real reason for doing all the things he’s done. He had a bad childhood, that’s it. That’s his big motif. The screenwriters think that’s what they can offer us to wrap up this series. Waltz, as I said before, doesn’t do anything special. He is just Waltz playing Waltz, but come on, give this villain something to hang on. We see him for a couple of minutes at the beginning and for another few minutes at the very end. He is supposed to be this ghost who has always loomed over Bond’s life but his presence is incredibly shallow and all in all, he’s extremely uninteresting. Not that Silva in Skyfall was great, or Greene in Quantum of Solace had a haunting presence, but a guy like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale had indeed some backbone. Here, the big antagonist is nothing special. It’s just another guy who wishes to blow everything to hell. Wow.

    After finally having seen Spectre, I can honestly say: this franchise should end right now. There is nothing more to offer other than an assured box office hit. But again, you people want this, right? You’ll pay for whatever has loud explosions and characters getting their heads split wide open. Okay, then. have it your way.

    spectre-t2-106
    Cuckoo.

The Creator’s Hands

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.

The-Cinematography-of-The-Revenant-2
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.

THE REVENANT
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.

12604809_1282214018471019_5736030016494621510_o
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.

12658044_1282214105137677_4824131336745333724_o
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.

the-revenant
Once you start breathing, you just can’t stop.

 

 

Coyote

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. 

4-nightcrawler-learning-from-other-photographer
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.

824A1334.CR2
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.

K72A6170.CR2
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.

1280x720-t94
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.

maxresdefault
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”

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

 

 

Messiah

Messiah

Today’s topic: the analysis of what is to me the greatest thriller ever made; David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). 

{As a WARNING, anyone who hasn’t seen the film or finds its subject matter (violence and gore) too difficult to bear with, please stop reading since spoilers and violent descriptions/pictures are to follow.}

David Fincher’s opinion on people is well known to film enthusiasts and his fellow collaborators, his view on who we are is a very crude, straightforward yet brave one: “People are perverts, that’s the foundation of my career.” If we have a look at Fincher’s work, his films always tackle the subject of evil, perversion and dishonesty. His movies very often revolve around who has the ultimate power, who is in a position to set the rules, who is in charge of a specific situation. And like the themes of his movies, Fincher’s direction is very unique. A rare, revolutionary voice in today’s cinema: “People will say, “There are a million ways to shoot a scene”, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” He always aims for the perfect, most suitable vision for the right moment. That’s why his rigorous shooting technique (shooting a car parking in front of a hotel over twenty times) is well known as a symbol of the ultimate effort in a day when movies are shot in a few weeks thanks to CGI and sound stages. Yes, I’m referring to you, Avengers. My point is, Fincher may be brutal as a filmmaker but within that brutality there’s beauty, pure beauty that no one can steal from him.

The hopeless bloody countdown.
The hopeless bloody countdown.

Aside from his crowning Oscar winning work in The Social Network, and the legendary craftsmanship of the classic Fight Club, Fincher has been known to most viewers as the man behind the 1995 thriller, Se7en. It’s a jarring film, its brooding tone will never leave you, right? But why is that? After all, it was Fincher’s only second feature after the studio-forced disaster of 1992, Alien 3. He was a young newcomer with a few films under his belt as an assistant cameraman and photography assistant in the early 80s, and a lot to say. But the competition’s always tough. So what is so outstanding about his second film? Se7en is not only a mystery, detective story. It’s a study of the forgotten parts of our society. The seven deadly sins represent the worst of the worst, yet all the victims can be considered innocent. Innocent because of the world they live in. Detective Mills and Somerset, played respectively by a young Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman, aren’t exactly the heroes we expect them to be. Why should they; they live in a city where it always rains, in a country where murders are a daily routine, bread and butter for the public. In fact, Somerset is growing old and the city is kicking him down, he doesn’t even have the courage to look outside the window anymore. He cringes in disgust. Sighs in desperation. It’s filthy, rainy and blood flows in the sewers. The city remains nameless, and slowly becomes a closed trap, a place with no escape route. You live and you die there. It rains. There is no hope. Embrace it.

There is always a start to an end.
There is always a start to an end.

Mills and Somerset’s relationship represents every attempt of every human being to bond with another within this particular world. I may sound as if I’m repeating myself, but take a close look and pay attention to the details. When the movie starts out, the two don’t like each other, in fact, Fincher underlines it to this point that in some scenes he sets Mills on the far end of a room from Somerset. As the investigation progresses the two get closer, literally. The camera doesn’t cut away between the two anymore. It frames them both at the same time. They grow fond of each other, they feel responsible for one and other, and they know what drives both of them to do what they do.  And by the time they are regular partners, buddy cops really, the ending hits them. The cruel, gruesome ending strikes both of them and sets the two apart, depicting this way a very realistic relationship that most of us can relate to. Because the world we live in is not only beautiful, joyous and inspiring, it is also raw and devastating. It’s the things that we don’t pay attention to that drive this world to the legendary apocalypse. It’s what we pass by every single day and don’t mind looking at. Maybe we don’t want to look. We don’t want to know. After all, truth is often merciless.

A friendship that is about to be shattered to pieces.
A friendship that is about to be shattered to pieces.

John Doe, the mysterious serial killer, played by Kevin Spacey in his prime (delivering a monumental performance yet again), calls himself the messiah of this generation. It may sound as the words of a madman, which he is. But really, what was Doe’s objective, his ultimate goal? He wanted the world to wake up, shake it to its core and shake people’s minds while at it. Force feeding an obese man until his stomach burst, torturing a well respected lawyer, keeping a drug dealer alive for a whole year strapped to his bed with few drops of water and the minimal amount of food, forcing a pill popping girl to commit suicide, cutting up a prostitute with the help of a sharp bondage toy, and finally going into Mills’ house and cutting his pregnant wife’s head, is the proof that for someone to notice something in today’s world there needs to be a gruesome crime. For Doe, it wasn’t a crime. It was sweeping the floor, clearing the useless dust and dirt off the streets. And to just quote the character: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.” In a very twisted, sick, dark way it’s the truth. We tolerate all the wars, all the drug trade, the bombings, the fanatics, the pedophiles, the rapists. We see all the world’s filth on the news and our sole reaction is to shake our head, shrug and stand up and go make some tea. We brush our teeth and we’re off to bed. John Doe took the matter into his own hands, setting the example by even sacrificing himself: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

The walking conclusion.
The walking conclusion.

Mills, after hearing about the gory murder of his pregnant wife, loses his wits. He’s a human being after all, but Fincher manages to add something more to it. Whenever the camera focuses on the detectives, it’s shaky. But when it comes to a close-up of John Doe down on his knees, waiting for the big finale, the camera is set on a tripod demonstrating that Doe’s in charge. Steady as a rock. Believe what you want to believe, but the madman has power over the men of the law. Madman? At the very end is John Doe the real psychopath? Mills, knowing that by killing Doe the case will be dropped and he’ll lose everything he’s fought for, ignores it and guns down the prisoner. Food for thought.

Somerset ends the movie with the famous quote, which in my opinion, tells the whole hidden story not only behind the movie itself, but our reality as well: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.” And that’s it. Fight for the better.

Losing every bit of humanity.
Losing every bit of humanity.