Live and Die on this Day.

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Joe Carnahan’s latest film, The Grey, is about survival, the way turn-of-the-century naturalists like Jack London and Mark Twain perceived it. Search as you may, but you won’t find any log cabins with warm fires in this outback. The diagnostic element of naturalist work is a clear attempt to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Carnahan’s film attempts just this, and nothing more. It is specific in its subject matter and harsh in its portrayal.

So what happens when we take a group of social outcasts, crash their plane in the alaskan wild, and throw in a pack of blood-thirsty wolves? A quality Liam Neeson movie, of course.

On the surface, films like The Grey may seem too stylized and formulaic. A mere look beyond the gratuitous violence and contrived computer-enhanced wolves, however, will undoubtedly provide for a more fulfilling experience. Take a look at how Carnahan photographs the environment, for example. The relentlessly frigid arctic landscape, “The Grey” as we are told, is literally a character in the film. Carnahan uses the sound of the wind in a way I have never experienced it filmically before. After elongated moments of silence, it arrives unexpected and blaring. The result is a haunting reminder that no one is safe (and if you think your insulated G2 bomber North Face parka is going to save you, then you are terribly mistaken, amigo).

Liam Neeson plays Ottwar, a John Wayne-esque Yeti of a man who knows a bit too much about wolves. Much like “The Ringo Kid,” he is introduced as a suicidal pariah and inserted into the group to function as a leader – someone who thinks linearly and decisively and does it best in the heart of the wilderness. It is his hardheaded decision-making that distinguishes him from the rest of the survivors, and only within the most pitiless regions of the wild can Ottwar transcend his troubling past and comprehend the fragility of his human existence. The desire to end his own life is replaced with the need to survive. An intriguing exchange, no doubt.

Overall, I found the film difficult to endure, but perhaps that’s Carnahan’s objective. Here we find a direct correlation between subject matter and viewer experience, because a voyage through the frosty unknown would be a challenge, would it not?

At least I can say that I survived.

Deus ex machina

Hesher doesn’t give a fuck.

He’ll break into your house, eat your food, throw things in your pool, and smoke cigarettes in your bathtub. He is a walking, breathing, head-banging manifestation of all that is vindictive and offensive in the world.

He falls out of the sky and into young TJ’s life. And so begins our film.

Within our protagonist’s home, despair is draped over worn furniture like a bad 70’s horror movie. TJ’s father, unable to sleep in the bed that his late wife shared with him, lies passed out and medicated on the couch. Meanwhile, TJ begs a car repairman for the smashed up car that claimed his mother’s life. But the car cannot be sold back, and TJ’s father cannot recover, no matter how many grief-counseling sessions he attends.

I find it interesting that the three central characters in this film, Hesher (Joseph Gorden-Levitt), TJ (Devin Brochu), and Nicole (Natalie Portman) all meet each other by means of violent conflict. Forced into one another’s lives unwillingly, their interactions become unusual and equally unsettling. This is where my problem with the film lies. With a story weighed down heavily by its depressing subject matter, we must rely on the characters to keep us emotionally invested. But they don’t deliver, and each scene seems to end on a more hopeless note than they one before it.

The question to be answered is why Hesher feels it necessary to become a new member of this random family. The film doesn’t answer this, nor seems to even make an attempt.

One scene, or portion of a scene, that I did take a liking too was at the end when TJ is walking through the junkyard amongst piles of wreckage searching for his mother’s car. I felt the aesthetics of this scene communicated a clear correlation between both visions of the director and cinematographer. The aim was to capture the havoc and destruction of young TJ’s life and to somehow show (not tell) the audience in a purely visual way.

Unfortunately, this moment of artistry is ruined when TJ does find the car, climbs inside, and experiences a flashback of the car accident. Why do we have to see the accident? Why can’t we stay with TJ in the car and watch as his emotions evoke the trauma he has suffered?

Overall, I think the story and the characters are here. What’s missing is an underlying purpose to drive the film forwards.

Rock Bottom

I saw Shame opening night in Hollywood. The entire theater was sold out, except for one seat in the very front row. I took it, reluctantly, hoping the movie would be solid enough to distract me from my poor seating choice.

I walked out of the movie thinking one thing. That the only way to see this film is in the front row. “Shame” is about confrontation, in all implications of the word. It’s about addiction. And most importantly, it’s about loss.

From the opening shot of our protagonist, played by Michael Fassbender, lying disillusioned, practically anesthetized, on his bed after yet another one-night stand, we can ascertain that this film functions as a slice of life. It is a glimpse into the life of a sex addict that has truly hit rock bottem. We are not shown how he falls into the problem, nor how he recovers from it. Indeed, all that matters to director Steve McQueen is to portray a character in the darkest depths of his obsession.

Our inciting incident is the arrival of Brandon’s sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, who is as passionate and uninhibited as he is emotionless. They rage at each other constantly. His shameful life no longer private, he demands that she leave. But she has no where to go, and she needs him. The conflict here is between a brother and sister who cannot make sense of the emptiness in their lives. They need to coexist, to heal each other’s wounds, but they are too deprived to know how to confront one another level-headedly.

The close-ups in this film are crucial. Emerson tells us that “the eyes are the windows into the soul.” We need to see Brandon’s eyes because they inform us of his tormented mind. In one scene, he makes eye contact with a girl on a subway. His eyes remain transfixed on hers, the connection so strong that he finds himself following her off the train until she is lost in a sea of people. Rendered completely defenseless to his own addiction, he is driven by an external and artificial force.

Steve McQueen shot this on 35 mm, which I think worked well, and I found the film’s aesthetic qualities to be very telling of the subject matter at hand. There is a muted, de-saturated, and monochromatic tonality to the scenes that take place within Brandon’s sterile Manhattan apartment. Yet, when he is roaming the nocturnal streets looking for his next high, his world becomes more colorful, at times almost psychedelic, to emphasize the sensation he is desperately searching for. The pathos is that he will never find what he is looking for. Like any narcotic, sex has become a form of self-abuse, and only brings him more suffering.

All in all, Fassbender and Mulligan rise to their challenging roles and deliver amazing performances. Shame is a really spectacular, stripped-down piece of cinema and a relief from all the ridiculously inorganic blockbusters that are flooding the box office right now.

This Isn’t the Matrix.

I’ll admit, I probably would never have seen Neil Burger’s Limitless if it wasn’t for a buddy of mine who, after some passionate coercive methods, finally convinced me to hit the “rent” button on iTunes. Can’t we all agree that the trailer for this film was pretty forgettable? A depressed, disheveled New York writer comes across a pill allowing him to access “the other 80%” of his brain and the next thing he knows he’s figured out a winning formula for Wall Street and he’s vacationing in Ibiza? Cue the Kanye West soundtrack…

I guess I was turned off initially by the glossy Hollywood coma that this film so effortlessly throws us into. Often I have trouble being taken with such a far-fetched story complimented by expensive visual effects and attractive A-list celebs. Where’s the acting? Where’s the simplicity? What’s the point?

Well, I was wrong. This film exceeded my expectations ten-fold and had me hooked from the get go. Why? Because, this isn’t a black and white transformation. Eddie Morra (Cooper), takes a sample of an experimental drug from his ex-brother-in-law / high-class pusher and things begin to change. The only problem: it’s a drug. Its effects are temporary and can only be re-lived by taking more. Watching Eddie struggle with this back and forth is what makes this film work. Before we know it, the film has achieved a momentum that even we have trouble keeping up with. At times, I literally felt like it was moving too fast, much like Eddie must have felt on the drug, when he begins to up the dosage and can no longer account for specific intervals of his daily life.

Suddenly we’re lost with Eddie in a quasi-Phlip K. Dickian future. Should we be surprised to discover that others at the top of the totem-pole are also abusing the drug? Nope. But this creates a serious problem for Eddie, especially when he learns of how fatal the effects of the drug can be once your supply runs out. Now the head trip becomes faster, more desperate, and more surreal. Soon his secret is out, and others want in.

Sure, there’s questionable plot issues and technical dilemmas. But why even bother picking apart the story for impracticalities? The way this film moves is fascinating. Intertwined within its highs and lows are moments in which Bradley Cooper delivers a solid performance. Props to Abbie Cornish and the all-mighty Robert De Niro, as well.

Another You?

I am always excited when I come across a film that is strengthened through its incorporation of science-fiction subject matter. Certainly the conflicts alone played out amongst the characters in Another Earth are heavy enough to carry the story, but director Mike Cahill’s decision to weave in an unsettling sci-fi element makes every line delivered more desperate, and every shot more beautiful. Perhaps just as beautiful is how the plot unfolds. Spoilers ahead…

After being accepted into MIT’s astrophysics program, Rhoda Williams (Marling) may have a bright future to look forward to, but it is one that vanishes in the blink of an eye. A night of reckless celebration leaves her judgement impaired, and the next thing she knows she is driving absentmindedly through the New England night. Distracted by a bright blue star in the sky, she mistakenly swerves into oncoming traffic, kills a wife and child, and leaves a husband in a choma.

Jump to 4 years later, when Rhoda is released from prison and must attempt to begin living a normal life with her family. But she can’t shake the regret. Flashbacks of the accident haunt her and the sadness is overwhelming. No longer a blue dot in the sky, Earth 2 is large and fully visible on the horizon, with scientists proclaiming that it is an exact replica of the planet, complete with “another you.”

In an attempt to find solace (and perhaps better lighting) she moves into her attic with only a mattress and a poster of a nebula – an interstellar cloud of hydrogen gas and dust. Sunlight pours in from a dirty window. These are some of my favorite shots in the film. She enters an online contest with the hopes of winning a trip to Earth 2. In other words, a new life. In a parallel universe, is it possible that the accident never really took place?

The film takes a compelling turn when Rhoda decides to confront John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man who lost everything because of her mistake. Upon seeing him in the flesh, however, she simply cannot find the words to apologize, and instead pretends she is a cleaning lady offering a “free trial.” Clever.

Perhaps the most poignant transformation to witness in the film is not Rhoda’s, but John’s. Once a renowned composer, his house becomes a chaotic mess of all that he once was in the wake of his trauma. Dishes pile high to the ceiling and music drafts lay haphazardly atop photos of his wife and son. With Rhoda’s help, however, John’s house and life is slowly pieced back together.

Although the relationship that unfolds between the two appears a bit predictable, Rhoda’s ultimate decision to give John her ticket to Earth 2 is not. In a parallel continuum where the accident did not take place, there’s a chance John can be re-united with his family. When the film does come full circle, we are heartened by Rhoda’s act of altruism. Perhaps giving someone you’ve wronged a better future is far more redemptive than selfishly escaping a troubled past.

What do we do now?

After some considerable reflection, I’ve finally decided what struck me most about Mike Mill’s indie-flick, The Beginners. It isn’t the abrasive dark humor, although the film seems to pour it over us at nearly every opportune time, nor is it the unpolished, fleeting cinematography. Nor is it Ewan McGregor’s questionable drawing capabilities…

Really, what it came down to for me was the caliber of acting, and more largely, the direction offered to both leading actors from the Berkeley-born director Mike Mill’s. A quick re-cap:

Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a middle-aged LA-based graphic designer, has not only discovered that his father is terminally ill with lung cancer, but that his father is also gay, after enduring a marriage and raising a son for over 60 years. Shortly after his father’s death, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a costume party. She is a french actress who floats from one hotel room to another, burdened constantly by her father’s suicidal phone-calls.

What’s interesting here is their initial meeting. Without saying a word to each other, they can both sense that the other is dealing with something difficult. Words need not be exchanged. Desperate to escape loneliness, both characters acknowledge the connection, which quickly develops into something more powerful.

The two know virtually nothing about one another and yet they both end up in Anna’s hotel room after the party. But Anna isn’t looking for a one-night stand. And neither is Oliver. It’s merely the shared company of another human soul during times of strife that is needed more than anything, and the two drift peacefully to sleep.

What unfolds is an honest love-story about two people struggling to make a relationship work whilst dealing with their own personal dilemmas. We care because we want so desperately for them to be happy, to move on from that which continues to pull them back down.

Will Oliver be able to truly love another after witnessing the dispassionate marriage between his mother and father? Will Anna rise to the challenge of bringing that much-needed light into Oliver’s dark life?

Is the timing just not in their favor? Or is it?

Guide us to the End of Time.

I first saw Badlands in a screenwriting class during my junior year of college. I remember being completely taken not necessarily with the bizarre story, but more largely with the incorporation of the classic Western panorama, those wide-open deserts stretching for miles into a horizon dotted with jagged Rocky Mountain peaks. It was these moments that moved me deeply, and re-instated the utter isolation and loneliness felt by the young couple as they retreated further into the unknown.

Never had any movie made me feel so vulnerable to the power of the Western landscape. Perhaps it was my time spent living in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a young boy that connected the film more immediately with my personal experience. After viewing Days of HeavenThe Thin Red Line, and most recently the majestic Tree of Life, I soon realized that Terrence Malick held the supreme talent for capturing earth’s natural aesthetic more organically and evocatively than any other director of his era.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity that lies at the root of his genius. Actors in his films are portrayed in their most raw, ethereal, and wholesome forms. Close-ups are used not to glamorize, but rather to reveal the hidden beauty within. Glassy eyes gaze patiently into the distance, a pair of weathered hands rubs soil into the wind, a toddler attempts to make his first steps. It’s these remarkably candid shots that Malick includes as dream-like reminders of a time lost. The final product is not merely a film, but a journey through shifting moods.

Malick inspires me to use my natural environment as a living, breathing, talking character in all of my films and photographs. Within the highly-evolved 21st century world of 3D movie-making, animated main-stream cinema, digital compositing and CGI, perhaps it’s time to stop using artificial means to outdo one another technically. I agree that quality is crucial, and some mechanical details must be considered. But as Malick has proven time and again since his first feature in 1973, sometimes all that is needed is the right natural light at the right time.

For many, viewing a film is the closest thing we know of to experiencing a dream. Like dreams, films require not only a reflection but also a descent into the unconscious elements of our psyche. Because films do not show us the entire life story of a character, but rather compressed versions of a particular struggle and subsequent resolution, they invite us to “fill in the blanks” by enacting further consideration of how the personal conflicts played out by the film’s protagonist are similar to our own.

Some of my earliest and most vivid memories are of my father’s bedtime stories – not the actual stories themselves, but rather the dreams I would experience shortly there after. As my world was turned upside down in the haziness of my fatigue and the darkness of the outside world, I was guided through an alternate universe by the sound of my father’s voice. Unable to distinguish where my father’s stories ended and my dreams began, I explored forests with talking trees, soared over deserts with purple pyramids, and conversed with exotic animals. It was this initial introduction to a complex form of communication, of losing myself completely in the fabric of my father’s stories, that inspired my initial passion for filmmaking.

Thus, I am drawn to filmmakers who acknowledge the power of dream imagery in their films. It seems as though many modern filmmakers can become enamored with grand themes and mythic patterns, but I feel that a film’s depth depends far more on the small things: a gesture here, a line there, the look of a room, the right light at the right time, or eye contact between two characters. When we awake from a dream, we do not readily remember the dream as a whole, but rather, the tiny moments that unsettled or derailed us. These same moments must be consciously incorporated in a film  in order for it to effectively breach the threshold of the viewer’s psyche and solicit within him a powerful emotional response.