Category: Tearjerkers


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Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.

There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I promised you all in my last Best Of list [well, actually, it was in the post explaining why there would be major differences to my Best Of lists and arranging all the films I viewed by score] that I would start at least reviewing the “A” and “A+” films that I’ve watched again. Well, last week, I finally got around to watching one of those films. And in an instant reminder of why I’d had to retire this blog, I’ve only just now found the time to do this write-up. But, I really have a lot to say about this film so here goes.)

Terrence Malick’s last two films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, both dealt with questions as old as mankind itself. Why are we here? Is there a purpose to my life? Are we alone even when those we love are physically in our presence? What do we do when we don’t have the answers to our own existential queries? What makes Terrence Malick so special is his own humility in knowing he can’t possibly hope to provide a definitive answer to those questions. At best, he can speculate on what he believes and capture the despair of our mortal need for answers in a world where those answers are impossible to grasp. And if a mainstream American blockbuster has ever come close to matching Malick’s existential introspection, it’s Steven Spielberg‘s 2001 science fiction opus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

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Discarding fears of artificial/synthetic intelligence overlords like Skynet or Mass Effect‘s Geth, we live in an exciting era of machine intelligence. I’m skeptical of a truly intelligent/sentient machine existing in my lifetime (although Ray Kurzweil’s prediction for the technological singularity places that in 2049 which would be the year I turn 60. So, maybe…), but programs like Wolfram Alpha or even less complex virtual intelligences like Apple’s Siri mean that an age where computers can be trained to understand natural language systems and return answers based on those queries is already upon us. And what happens when we have machines that can not only process information and provide answers but can also draw inferences and attachments to the sensory input they take in? Which is to say, what happens when a machine begins to have emotions?

What could have been a redundant and unnecessary question, one that had been thoroughly analyzed through Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is given new life and greater insight in Spielberg’s A.I. A.I. is the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), the world’s first “mecha” capable of genuine, unconditional love. Set in a world where global warming has raised the sea level and destroyed all of the world’s major coastal cities, population is strictly controlled, and few families are lucky enough to be given the license to have children. One such family, led by scientist Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) have an ill son kept alive through cryogenic sleep until scientists can find a cure for him. And, in the meantime, they are the test parents of David, designed to be the world’s perfect mecha son.

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Although Monica does not appreciate her husband’s decision to bring a robot boy to their home as a substitute for her sick son, she quickly warms to David, and once she “imprints” on him, he more than warms to her. He experiences the obsessive, protective, desperate love towards his new mother that only young children can understand. But, through a set of circumstances beyond David’s control, Monica is forced to abandon David into the cruel, dystopian world in which she lives. And David starts a manic and crazed quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio myth which he is convinced will turn him into a real boy so that he may finally have the love of his mother which he so desperately craves.

If A.I. were simply about whether or not David were a sentient being capable of emotion and genuine self-awareness, it would be unnecessary. And the film dispenses with those questions almost immediately. As soon as David’s capacity for unconditional love is awakened, he becomes a boy. A boy that is slightly off but a boy nonetheless. He is capable of hopes and dreams and aspirations. He wants love and affection. He wants to impress his mother. He ignores the logical and sane response to the Blue Fairy myth (which is to say that it is a myth) and believes that he can actually become a real boy. Therefore, he is capable of that most human of responses, self-delusion.

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And because A.I. has the sense to be about more than whether or not David is a sentient being, it is able to ask deeper questions. Was it ethical to create David at all? The world is a cruel, miserable place, and is it right to create a being as innocent as David and then thrust him into this misery? Of course, by the end of the film, David’s woes and journey and existential quest become a stand-in for all of humanity. Is there something inherently selfish about the act of human procreation? Is our human habit of creating grandiose justifications for our own existence desperate self-delusion or beautiful despite its falsehood? Can our existence be its own justification? Is our human need for love a strength or a weakness that consumes us when it’s not provided?

And through Steven Spielberg’s marvelous direction and a story conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, A.I. takes a long, hard look into the potential nihilism of our own existence and manages to provide something beautiful and meaningful at the end. Let there be no mistake. A.I. is not the cloying melodrama that Spielberg is prone to in his weakest moments, but it also refuses to be an empty reflection of the abyss that happens in Kubrick’s darker pictures. Instead, A.I. paints a heartbreaking and horrifically sad portrait of growing up, loss, mortality, and parenthood while also saying that the beauty of some of those experiences and the narratives we craft in our lives makes our existence worthwhile.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence isn’t a perfect film. There are moments where its most heartbreaking moments wildly shift from genuine despair to forced melodrama. At two and a half hours long, the film has more than enough to say to suit its lengthy run time, but there are still scenes that could have used more editing simply because a number of scenes just run slightly too long. Although the film is very much meant to be a science fiction fairy tale, it is a science fiction fairy tale grounded in realism, and one scene involving fish in the submerged ruins of New York City breaks that illusion of realism.

But these are minor complaints about what is easily one of the finest science fiction films of the aughts. Great science fiction holds up a mirror to modern society and forces you to engage with the great questions of your time, or in the case of the best science fiction works, of all time. And A.I. Artificial Intelligence will have a shelf life that I hope lives on even into the days where artificial intelligence isn’t simply something we see in works of fiction. If you want a film that presents a marvelous fairy tale and thrilling adventure for chidlren but poses the kind of questions and insights you expect as an adult, A.I. is everything you could wish for.

“I am. I was.”

Score: A

 

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If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog dived as directly into the psychological makeup of the individuals that would isolate themselves at the bottom of the Earth as he did the gorgeous vistas of the Antarctic landscape. If you decide to abandon a life in the civilized world to work in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on the planet, clearly you aren’t operating on the same wavelengths as the normal person. And that insight into people throwing themselves onto the mercy of nature is what makes Encounters at the End of the World one of the most fascinating documentaries of the aughts.

2007 saw the release of another film dealing in something of the same subject matter. Based off the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a dramatized peek into the real life story of the doomed Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. Lost in the sea of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men as well as perennial contender for Best Film of the Aughts, There Will Be Blood, I’d always thought Into the Wild has never gotten its proper due as one of the premier films of the late 2000s, and this most recent viewing only confirms that suspicion.

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This viewing of Into the Wild made me think a lot about Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel On the Road (and by proxy, because of Kristen Stewart’s small role in this movie, the 2012 film version). I’ve always been confused by people’s interpretation of On the Road as a celebration of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic, nomadic lifestyle. Sal is a desperately lonely man looking for any meaning in his empty existence, and Dean is a mentally unhinged serial misogynist. That book has always been a piercing look into the sadness and lack of definition in the lives of youngsters unfulfilled by the materialistic excess of modern life. The road is simply the outlet for their nihilistic confusion. Into the Wild is cut from the same cloth.

In real life, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a highly intelligent and socially/politically committed young man fresh out of college at Emory University in Georgia. But Christopher suffers from some of the worst (and most realistic) PTSD in any mainstream American film caused from years of living in the shadow of his parents’ (American Gun‘s Marcia Gay Harden and Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt) violence and anger-fueled marriage, and it has made him tragically sensitive to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern existence. And one day, without telling anyone, including his beloved sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), Christopher donates his entire life-savings to Oxfam and hits the road in his car never to be seen by his family again.

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Christening himself with the road handle of Alexander Supertramp, Christopher throws his entire old life away (including losing his car early in the journey) and hoofs it on foot, train, and kayak across the entire US for two years before making his way to Alaska where his life would come to a tragically early close. The film frames the events of Christopher’s early life as well as his epic journey across America as Alexander as intermittent flashbacks during his attempts to survive the brutality of the Alaskan wild. And when Christopher’s only shelter in the Alaskan wild was an abandoned VW bus he found by accident, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.

Into the Wild could be subtitled “Listen to These People Trying to Help You, You Idiot: The Movie,” and it would be surprisingly apt. Although the film does occasionally paint Christopher in a surreal messianic light (one of the flaws keeping it from perfection), it also never romanticizes the inevitable tragedy of Christopher’s mission. Chris meets a large number of people along his way, including Synecdoche, New York‘s Catherine Keener and On the Road‘s Kristen Stewart, and time and again, these strangers offer him the affection and companionship he’s been robbed off his whole life, but he consistently throws that away to continue his crazed goal of conquering the Alaskan wild.

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And that’s the entire point of Into the Wild. For his entire life, Christopher has only known a life defined by arbitrary and hypocritical value systems: wealth, social ambition, markers of capitalistic success. And the people selling these values to him were as broken and full of shit as the values he espoused. His parents lived in an invalid marriage and he discovers he’s actually a bastard child. And this drives Christopher to seek the exact opposite of the world his parents inhabit: a naturalistic life devoid of the modern comforts (and vices) of civilized society. Only to late does Christopher realize that nature is as cruel and unforgiving (although perhaps more sincere) than his parents and the real world.

As a psychological study of what would lead a bright young lad like Christopher to give up on life and more or less willingly commit suicide, Into the Wild is one of the most powerful and overwhelmingly sad films of the aughts. As someone who has on more than one occasion found myself lost in the existential throes of wondering why this life is worth living, Christopher’s struggles rink devastatingly true. And when Christopher meets kind strangers like Catherine Keener’s loving hippie or Hal Holbrook (in an Oscar nominated turn) as a lonely old man seeking companionship, it’s perfectly clear why he throws their love away even though it’s precisely what he needs. He doesn’t know any world where that doesn’t lead to him getting hurt even more.

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And beyond the heartache of watching one man’s foolish decision to destroy his own comfortable life, Into the Wild is overflowing with moments of such honest tragedy and horror that the film never slags (despite, admittedly, being far too long). During one of the Alaska segments, a starving Christopher (visualized by constantly notching a new hole in his belt) has finally killed a moose. But before he can cook it, flies immediately lay their eggs in it and the writhing maggots make it totally inedible. It’s one of the most terrifying and soulcrushing moments in mainstream American cinema. And it marks the clear beginning of the end of Christopher’s life.

It also doesn’t hurt that Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully shot films of the aughts; in fact, it might honestly be too beautifully shot which leads to its consistent misinterpretation as celebrating Christopher’s lifestyle. There is something utterly Malick-ian about the cinematography of this film with its stunning shots of the American countryside. If you’ve ever doubted the eternal beauty of the Yukon or grain fields in South Dakota or the Colorado River, even a quick viewing of Into the Wild will dispel you of such ignorance. Few films have ever managed to be so soul-boringly sad while also being so triumphantly beautiful.

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Emile Hirsch carries the majority of this film on his shoulders and there are large spans of Into the Wild where there’s no one else on screen with him, and it was a hell of a performance from a young actor. I mostly knew Hirsch from his role in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door, but his dramatic chops were more than up to the task of portraying the toweringly complex Christopher. As Christopher realizes that he’s dying (because he’s accidentally ingested poisonous roots), I can name few actors who have more convincingly sold the knowledge that one’s life is at its end than Emile Hirsch in those scenes.

And, the film’s supporting cast borders on ludicrous. The criminally under-appreciated Catherine Keener shines as the hippy Jan who begins to see Christopher as a surrogate son to replace the one that ran away from her. Vince Vaughan plays slightly against type to great effect as the man running the combine that Christopher works for for a short time. She’s so bad in the Twilight films that I forgot what an exciting and memorable performance a young Kristen Stewart gave during her short stint in this film as a young folk singer living on a hippie commune that falls in love with Christopher during his journey.

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But, rightly so, most of the attention in terms of performances for this film went to Hal Holbrook as the old man who offers Chris a random lift but finds his life changed by their encounter. Into the Wild is one of those films that is too sad to cry in during most of its run because it’s just so brutally realistic. But, when Hal shows up, and it’s clear that he’s lived a life of total regret since the death of his wife and son decades prior, a torrent of tears suddenly opened up in me. Holbrook plays the role with such subtlety and precision. It might be the most baldly emotionally manipulative arc of the film but when it’s performed so well, not even the cynic in me can raise a major complaint.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things worth complaining about in the film. The movie might not romanticize Christopher’s doomed quest, but it sure as hell romanticizes Christopher himself as a martyr of the “too pure for this cruel world” stripe. And that’s the wrong tack to take. Although the film doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christopher borders on being mentally ill (as I said, he clearly has severe PTSD), it also has moments of him spouting faux-profound philosophical nonsense, and it’s not clear enough that you’re aren’t supposed to agree with what Christopher is saying. And, of course, the film is about thirty minutes too long.

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And, there are moments where the camera work begins to get a little too “Hey! Notice me!” for its own good. There’s a moment where Christopher is showing shot in slow-motion as he whips his hair and beard in the water that is patently ludicrous and the spinning shot out of the bus after Christopher has finally passed away nearly wrecks the somber nature of the moment. I’m not saying that a static shot of his dead corpse was the right way to go, but motion sick is not the way to sell the death of the main character of your modern American epic.

Those are small complaints against what is otherwise one of the most refreshingly sincere and powerful American films of the aughts. Throw in a perfect score by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and there are very few film lovers that I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this movie to. I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating here, Into the Wild is a messy, flawed, overlong almost masterpiece. Like Gangs of New York and Das Boot before it, it is a film that comes as close to perfection as one can while still falling just short.

Final Score: A

 

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Narrative elegance has become something of a lost art. With the notable exception of Kenneth Lonergan, the idea of a simple story, exceptionally told, rarely graces the silver screen.  The idea that you don’t need a high-concept logline but, rather, just exquisitely drawn characters providing a fresh perspective on the human condition. I don’t mean to dismiss complex narratives or metatextual storytelling (my adoration of Synecdoche, New York should speak to that) or films of the Terrence Malick stripe that nearly abandon plot all together. I simply year for easier access to films with a more natural and understated approach to observing life, in all its forms. And 1948’s The Bicycle Thief is an undeniable masterwork of that species of film-making.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the fathers of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, a post-World War II school of filmmaking rooted in a realistic portrayal of lower-class suffering (Fellini’s La Strada is the closest I’ve come to reviewing a Neo-Realist picture on this blog before, but more accurately, that was a transitional film for Fellini to his later, surrealist works). Neo-Realist films often utilized non-professional actors so the movies would look even more authentic, and they intentionally avoided the glitz and glamour of Hollywood-style film-making. And in De Sica’s magnum opus, The Bicycle Thief, the tenets of Neo-Realism are on full, heart-wrenching display as one man’s quest for survival is chronicled in all of its tragic (non)glory.

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In a post-fascism Italy, unemployment is endemic, and Rome, one of the shining jewels of Europe, is awash in crippling poverty. Jobs are given away by lottery, and on one fateful evening, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioriani) has his name chosen to place posters around the city (of a Rita Hayworth film which is a particularly clever joke about this film’s non-glamorized nature). Antonio has been unemployed for so long though that he and his long-suffering wife have been forced to pawn most of their possessions including the family bicycle. And, in the first of many ironic twists throughout the film, Antonio’s new job requires him to own a bike.

Of course, Antonio doesn’t have enough money to get the bike out of the pawn shop and he and his wife are forced to pawn their sheets, which were part of the wife’s dowry on their wedding. And, in another brilliant visual in the film, we see a mountain of sheets that other families in the Riccis same position have had to sell. And so, Antonio finally has his bike and for the first time in ages, he can provide for his family. But, the cruelty of an indifferent world has other plans in mind when Antonio’s bike is stolen at the beginning of his very first day of work, and so he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to go on a day-long mission to find the bike because if they can’t, they won’t have enough money to even eat.

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And, in what I hope isn’t too massive a spoiler considering the brutal nature of the film, they don’t get the bike back but that’s far from the most upsetting element of the film’s denouement. From a plot perspective, that’s all The Bicycle Thief is. It’s a story about a father and son’s failed quest to retrieve a stolen bicycle. But beneath that simple surface is a series of complex statements on the relationship between father and sons, the quiet desperation of the working poor, and the lengths we will go to provide for those we care for. What is Glengarry Glen Ross but The Bicycle Thief with a new coat of Reagan-era, “Me”-Generation  paint?

The Bicycle Thief joins Rachel, Rachel and A Single Man as being one of the most overwhelmingly sad films that I’ve watched for this blog. From beginning to end, the sheer weight of retrieving a stolen bicycle feels like the matter of life and death that it has become. And Vittorio De Sica shoots the film with such honest detail and confident assurance in the audience’s ability to understand the plight of the Ricci family that The Bicycle Thief never has to resort to ham-fisted melodramatics to get its point across. It simply presents this family’s life as it is and it lets the audience come to the natural conclusions.

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The Bicycle Thief has been accused of being political propaganda (particularly that it was some type of Marxist allegory), and though I can understand that interpretation, my response is “So what if it is?” and that the film has so much more going than that. Clearly, Vittorio De Sica is overwhelmed by the poverty and desperation that was destroying his country. And, by taking one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rome, and reducing it to its poorest elements (only once contrasting it with an upper-crust bourgeois life during the restaurant sequence), De Sica shows the reality of the 99%. But, the film takes pains to not mythologize or romanticize poverty which leads to the film’s most famous sequence, which has now become one of the most powerful film scenes I’ve ever watched.

As I said earlier, Antonio doesn’t get his bike back, but that’s now where his humiliation and degradation ends, and it’s part of what makes the film so powerful. If The BIcycle Thief were made today, Antonio would get his bike back or some kind stranger would help him find a way out of his situation even without the bike. Here, Antonio is pushed so far past the brink of despair that in a moment of weakness, he tries to steal another man’s bike, making the circle of poverty and desperation complete. And, as he’s chased by an angry mob and Bruno watches his father with shameful tears in his eyes, you realize that whoever took Antonio’s bike was likely pushed there by the same cruelties that led Antonio to the same situation.

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And though the film is stripped of a lot of cinematic artifice, it’s black and white photography is still gorgeous though the most impressive technical aspect of the film was editing. The print on Netflix Instant is a fairly miserable transfer job, but there were moments of montage and transposition that were at an Eisenstein-level of brilliance. In fact, I imagine that during the lead-up to Antonio’s failed attempt to steal the bike, De Sica was heavily influenced by the “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. The interplay between the world, not of wealth but merely getting by, against Antonio’s existentialist battle to survive does more to cement what drives him to steal another man’s bike than any amount of exposition ever could.

Lamberto Maggiorani was a non-professional performer as Antonio but his performance was better for its almost total lack of theatricality. A great director can get star performances from the most unlikely sources, and Vittorio De Sica hit a home run with Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio. Not simply because he looks like the type of man who would be in Antonio’s position, Maggiorani hits the right notes of frustration, desperation, and wounded desire at every corner. Antonio is a man constantly bullied by the cruel whims of fate, and Maggiorani always makes you feel his heartbreak. Enzo Staiola is also excellent as Bruno’s young son particularly when his visions of his father are forever shattered by Antonio’s decision to steal the bicycle.

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But, above all, what makes The Bicycle Thief such a masterpiece is its complete refusal to talk down to its audience or gild the linings of the movie whatsoever. Even before Antonio decides to steal another man’s back, he is pushed to the edge time and time again. He follows an impoverished old man into a church and harasses him during mass on the off-chance the man will help him get his bike back. At one point, he thinks his son has drowned in a river but when it turns out to be another boy that has suffered, he can’t even suppress his smile that at least it’s someone else suffering. If there’s a political statement in The Bicycle Thief, it’s that society can not be surprised if we begin to sociopathically care only for our own needs and desires if there is absolutely no safety net waiting to ensure that we survive.

I had never seen The Bicycle Thief before yesterday, and even after one viewing, it has already leaped its way into being one of the top ten films I’ve ever seen. Occasionally, the films that I idolize for this blog are particularly cerebral and are only appreciable by a niche crowd (The Tree of Life or Through a Glass Darkly). The Bicycle Thief is simple yet so elegant that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to love in this marvelous picture. For film-lovers, it is the definition of required viewing.

Final Score: A+

 

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A few years back, comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special for HBO, and one of the first bits of his set was an extended rant about the inherent misery of life. His initial metaphor was that anytime you buy a child a dog, you’re actually setting everyone up for misery sooner or later when said dog dies. He then took it further by saying that all human relationships are predicated on inevitable tragedy. Either you date and you break up, you date and you get married, or you date, get married, and then one of you dies. Louis C.K. was taking human mortality for somewhat deep comedic laughs, but the newest film from Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) is an extended dramatic meditation on the untold tragedy and suffering of what happens if you’re a married couple that’s “fortunate” enough to make it to old age together. And, Amour, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film is nearly as emotional an experience as it gets.

Considering the film’s subject matter (an elderly couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s), it was somewhat ironic that this was the film I watched right now for this blog because my best friend and I had a fairly in-depth conversation on the topic just the other day. Amour wrestles with the question “Is it worth keeping someone alive who is no longer themselves in any sense of the word?” It would be easy to misinterpret this film as a chronicle of one husband’s almost selfless devotion to his wife, but that would be the wrong way to look at the film. The film wonders (in a vein more similar to The Road than one might think) whether the notion that human existence is sacrosanct is really true and if there are, in fact, moments when it would just be better if we were dead. And, if my interpretation of Haneke’s thesis is correct, I would be hard-pressed to name a film that handles these topics with more care or brutal insight.

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An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Academy Award nominee Emmanuelle Riva), wile away their few remaining years in their well-kept but antiquated Paris apartment. Anne is in her 80s but in her youth, she was a much-respected piano instructor and one of her star pupils, Alexandre, is now a famous concert pianist, and the film opens on Georges and Anne at one of his concerts. Sadly, for this otherwise happily married pair of octogenarians, this will be their last night resembling happiness as Anne is on the verge of manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (though it’s never stated as such in the film) and she’s not long away from the first of a series of strokes. And though, Anne is somewhat functional at first, it isn’t long before she loses any semblance of her former self and Georges, with occasional help from his daughter Eva (La Ceremonie‘s Isabella Huppert), is forced to spend every waking moment caring for the shell of a person that used to be his wife.

If you couldn’t tell from that description, Amour is a sad film. It reaches Synecdoche, New York/Rachel, Rachel levels of misery. In fact, it’s safe to say that it exceeds both of those films in terms of brutal heart-ache. Yet, it accomplishes all of this without falling into the trappings of melodrama. There were a million ways that writer and director Michael Haneke could have spun this tale, but he went for horrific honesty. There are few possibles fates in life more terrifying than to succumb to a degenerative mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Haneke captures it without sentiment or embellishment or any possible silver-lining. For those who have seen The Notebook, this film comes off as the antithesis of the big reveal of that film. With haunting realism, Amour stares suffering at its purest in the face and doesn’t blink.

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Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in this film, and now, I honestly don’t know whether or not she or Jennifer Lawrence should have won. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of research Riva put in to nailing all of the physical symptoms of not just Alzheimer’s but also the multiple strokes her character suffered. It is a commitment to a realistic portrayal of a type of mental illness that’s nearly on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. My family had a close friend when I was a child who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s so I’ve seen the torment the illness wreaks on a human being. And Emmanuelle Riva channeled the bewilderment and constant terror that Anne was feeling any second she wasn’t in a state of merciful lucidity.

However, in a vein similar to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (though at least Anne has an arc, but it’s an arc towards stasis), the real emotional core of Amour was carried by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. One can not belittle the suffering that Anne goes through. By the end of the film, she exists as a barely conscious being. But, it is through Georges’s eyes that we experience Anne’s suffering. And slowly throughout the film, Jean-Louis transforms what appears to be a selfless devotion to his wife into an entirely selfish desire to keep her alive because he couldn’t bear to be alone. And Georges is cognizant of his own suffering and has to deal with knowing every day and every night that the woman he’s been with decades is gone and he’s clinging to mere memories and her corporeal existence. And, as a portrait of the malignant reality of getting old and facing the end of everything you’ve ever cared about, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as good as Emmanuelle Riva. He (along with several other performers) impressed me more than the theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is my favorite living actor.

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The cinematography from Darius Khondji paired with Haneke’s direction is uniformly excellent. The camera captures in rich detail every inch of Georges and Anne’s apartment and the quiet life that Georges wants to live versus the tribulations that have been forced upon him and his wife. And, Haneke’s decision to consistently incorporate lengthy takes only adds to the heightened realism of the picture. The takes in Amour become uncomfortably long, but by refusing to turn away from a brutal moment with cuts that alleviate the tension, Haneke forces the viewer directly into the suffering of Amour‘s world. There’s a moment towards the end of the film that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that involves Georges reciting a tale from his childhood to his essentially catatonic wife that ranks among the most effectively shot, written, and acted sequences of modern memory.

Amour is so singular in its dedication to heartbreak that by the end of the film, one may (though it seems mostly doubtful) find themselves inured to the misery. I am a crier. It does not take much to make me cry in a film. And, although Amour is without question one of the most distressing and gut-wrenching films I’ve ever sat through, it did not make me cry. And, I think that was intentional on Haneke’s part. Eventually, Amour begins to leave the realm of sad and enters existentialist horror. You become too overwhelmed with the notion that this could easily happen to you or someone you care about to be able to process the film in typical emotional ways. Or at least, that was my response. By Amour‘s end, I began to experience a physical sense of dread. The misery of this film manifested itself in me as a sense of being physically ill. That’s powerful film-making.

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Watching Amour is a commitment. It’s not entertaining in any traditional sense, and there were moments where the film’s unwavering artistic vision bordered on torturous (in the good sense). You are volunteering yourself to two hours of heart-ache and suffering without any hope of a gilded edge to soften the pain. But, Amour is an edifying experience of truly exceptional power and uncompromising respect for the viewer’s intelligence as well as the plight of its protagonists. For those with an interest in powerful cinema and for film-making that has something to say, Amour was easily one of the best films of last year. However, if you are already depressed or sad about something, hold off on watching Amour until you can come in with a more even-keel because, otherwise, I fear that this film could ruin you.

Final Score: A

(One final note. I have now finally seen all of last year’s Best Picture nominees. This was the last one to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. And, boy did the Academy really FUBAR what won. For those curious, this is my list of the order of the films nominated for Best Picture [This disqualifies my top two films of the year which weren’t nominated, The Master and To the Wonder]:

1. Life of Pi

2. Amour

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Django Unchained

5. Zero Dark Thirty

6. Lincoln

7. Argo

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Les Miserables

 

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David Lynch is known for two things: mind-bending surrealism and an uncanny ability to terrify audiences through entirely unconventional means. His best films (Inland Empire, Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr.) tap into both realms through surrealistic nightmares of Freudian psycho-sexual imagery. I’ve been watching Twin Peaks lately (I’m near the beginning of Season 2), and in the episodes where Lynch has the biggest involvement, it too hits those high-notes. 1980s The Elephant Man is without question a Lynch film. His second directorial feature, it features Lynch’s sympathy with the bizarre and cast-aside. But it is also an almost uncharacteristically straight-forward exercise in Lynchean film-making. It lacks much of the surrealism that defines him as a director, and the structure of the film is remarkably simple by Lynch standards. It is also, perhaps, Lynch’s most thematically complex and emotionally rich picture so perhaps leaving the surrealistic flourishes at the door was the correct decision.

Though there is generally an over-riding theme to any given Lynch film (Blue Velvet = pulling back the curtain on suburban tranquility, Inland Empire = the borderline psychotic obsession of the best performers, Eraserhead = a Freudian nightmare of fatherhood), I also don’t think said themes are often the point of that particular Lynch work. They aren’t the reason that people obsess over his films. Lynch is a cinematic technician of the highest order and when modern directors like Gaspar Noé and others aspire to match his work (they rarely do), it is because they recognize his rightful standing as one of the great cinematic visualists. For the first time that I can remember, the visual nature of Lynch’s films takes a back seat (though trust me, it’s still there waiting in the wings) and instead The Elephant Man becomes an almost quiet mediation on cruelty and the perverse nature of voyeurism.

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The Elephant Man is a very loose adaptation of the true story of 19th century Englishman Joseph Merrick (called John in the film and played by Alien‘s John Hurt), who suffers from a truly horrific series of bodily deformities that gives him such a frightening visage that he has been exploited by the circus and dubbed “The Elephant Man.” The film begins with respected British surgeon and anatomist, Frederick Treves (Thor‘s Anthony Hopkins), arriving at the circus and finding himself intrigued by this so-called Elephant Man display which is causing enough of a stir that the police force the circus owner, Bytes (Freddie Jones), to shut down that feature in his display of “freaks.” Treves requests a private viewing where he sees John Merrick for the first time and is struck to tears by the man’s disfigured frame. Treves strikes a monetary deal with Bytes and utilizes John in a medical forum on anatomical abnormalities before returning John to Bytes, under the impression that Merrick can’t speak or understand English.

When John returns to the circus, he gets bronchitis and when Bytes realizes he can’t beat it out of John, he calls Treves back to fix his prized possession. And after an extended stay at the Royal British Hospital, Treves discovers that John is actually capable of speech and has known how to read for most of his life, a fact he’s hidden to avoid beatings from Bytes. After convincing the hospital’s governor, Carr Gomm (The Charge of the Light Brigade‘s John Gielgud), of John’s intelligence, Treves becomes John’s permanent caretaker and mentor. And, though Treves realizes he initially exploited John in a manner similar to Bytes, Treves tries to atone for his early selfishness by helping to integrate John into the upper echelons of British society and to give him a life of comfort and happiness that has constantly eluded him. But, the cruelty and wanton stares that have haunted Merrick his whole life will need more than Treves’s good intentions to disappear.

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John Hurt received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his turn as John. For the first thirty or so minutes of the film, I actually thought that Treves was the true main character of the piece, but once John begins actually speaking, he takes his rightful place as the emotional center of the film. Though some could accuse Lynch of portraying Merrick as being inspirationally disadvantaged in a Forrest Gump-esque manner, I actually think the film is a deconstruction of that trope. John’s utilization as a “freak” that happens to be well-spoken and the hottest ticket in upper British society is treated as the exploitation it is, and one of the greatest scenes of the film is Anthony Hopkins (also in a brilliant performance) wondering if he is a good man or a bad man for what he is done. John’s circle in life isn’t complete until he’s truly accepted as a peer by these men and not some novelty for their dissection (and when that finally occurred, I was, of course, in tears).

Here’s a fun fact about The Elephant Man that you may not be aware of. The Best Makeup category at the Academy Awards was invented because of this movie. There was not a category to honor the make-up work in The Elephant Man in 1980, and only a vague special citation had been given in the citation category in the past. If you’ve seen The Elephant Man, you know how absurdly well-done John’s makeup is. I’ve seen photographs of the actual Joseph Merrick, and John Hurt is made to look practically just like him. I miss the pre-2000s days of actual physical special effects. If The Elephant Man were made today, Merrick would probably be some type of CGI creation, and it would rob him of his basic humanity. As an actual physical creation, John becomes a marvelous feat of technical wizardry that looks phenomenal 33 years later.

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That both this and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People for Best Director and Best Picture (and to Polanski’s Tess, which is at least a great film, for Best Cinematography) has to be one of the most absurd moments in Academy history. I mentioned that this is one of Lynch’s more subtle films, but I don’t mean that as an insult. His strength as a visually arresting director are still on full display (though his usual surrealist touches are left to dream sequences that are explicitly such). The Elephant Man is shot in a beautiful black-and-white, and in general, the movie’s visual style is an homage to German expressionism of the Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau vareity as well as subtle shout-outs to the Tod Browning cult film, Freaks. Considering the look of this and Eraserhead, part of me wishes that Lynch might have stuck to black & white though his color films are just as good. The movie’s sound design is nearly as interesting as its visual direction as it turns into some nightmare of industrialization.

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to eat lunch and watch (ironically enough perhaps) some more of season two of Twin Peaks. I didn’t have much time to dive into the thematic statements of the film. The movie is particularly effective in making the audience feel guilty for wanting to know what John looks like. You become as much of a bastard as those that hound him at the train station (which provides the film’s most famous sequence). The Elephant Man provides something that few Lynch films ever do (and this is coming from a huge fan). It provides actual emotional context. The Elephant Man is an almost overwhelmingly sad experience but not in a cheap, exploitative way. This is a David Lynch film for that aren’t generally David Lynch fans.

Final Score: A-

 

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I had intended to post this review earlier today. But, my body is sort of a mess right now. It’s a new school semester, and my body, long accustomed to sleeping in til well after noon, is fighting a hard fight against my intention to wake up every day no later than 10 AM. Case in point, I fell asleep after a full 16 hour day Monday night at around 2 AM but I woke up at 5 AM and was unable to fall back asleep until around 10 AM. I slept til 1:30 PM (when I had to get up for class), got back home at around four and slept til I left for work. My body doesn’t know what to do with itself. I have to be up at 9:30 AM today (so Wednesday morning) but it’s almost 2 and despite taking a sleeping pill, my body doesn’t want to go to sleep. I am, however, hell bent on correcting myself even if that means operating on minimal amounts of sleep on those days that I don’t work. I’ll do that if I have to. This is all meant to say that my blogging may be taking a backseat because of this (also cause of all of the homework I have to do).

It is a sort of weird, almost divine providence that I wound up reviewing Rain Man a little less than two weeks after I reviewed Forrest Gump. On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking they’re two similar films. They both involve a mentally disabled man that possesses astounding gifts who uses said gifts to enrich the lives of those around them. Praise the heavens that the surface is where these two films’ similarities end. Rain Man is, as I will posit, the anti-Forrest Gump. Where the latter deals in trite sentimentality, unearned emotional manipulation, and patently absurd twists of plot (it is the trope codifier for the “magical retard” [sorry for the offensive word]), Rain Man is firmly planted in the real world and though a clear emotional arc is traveled, an autistic savant doesn’t magically solve the problems of everyone around him.

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For those who’ve not seen the truly great bit of 80s filmmaking from director Barry Levinson (Diner), Rain Man is a genuinely moving (if occasionally predictable) spin on one of the most American genres of film, the road movie. A fast-talking, self-centered yuppie, Charlie Babbit (The Color of Money‘s Tom Cruise), finds out that his estranged father has died, and along with his Italian fiancee, Susanna (Valeria Golino), makes the trip from L.A. to Cincinnati for his father’s funeral and the reading of his will. But, Charlie finds out that all his father left him was a classic convertible and prize-winning rose bushes, not the $3 million estate that should have been his birthright. With some minor investigation, Charlie finds out that his father left all of his money to Raymond Babbit (Wag the Dog‘s Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant living in a mental institution that is also the older brother that Charlie never knew he had.

And thus, as a bargaining tool to extort the mental institution’s head caretaker to give Charlie the $3 million that’s been set aside in a trust for Raymond, Charlie decides to kidnap his brother since Raymond’s stay in the hospital is voluntary and no one established an official conservatorship of Raymond after the dead of their father. But, Charlie quickly learns that caring for his brother will be much more work than he bargained for. Raymond is unable to process emotion and information in a way even remotely similar to normal people, and he is a slave to the routines of his life. If he doesn’t eat certain foods at certain times or misses his shows at their scheduled time or doesn’t wear clothes from a specific K-Mart, he starts to snap. Throw in a massive crisis in Charlie’s personal life, and the caretaking of Raymond proves to be an almost insurmountable obstacle. But, as Charlie and Raymond make their way across America, Charlie learns that maybe he can love this brother he never met.

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It almost goes without saying at this point that Dustin Hoffman’s performance in this film is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. Not to belabor my anti-Forrest Gump analogy, but in that film, one would be forgiven for thinking Gump wasn’t really retarded in a traditional sense. He was just slow. I’ve known non-retarded types in real life that are easily dumber than Forrest Gump. You believe for every second that he’s on screen that Hoffman has autism. Hoffman is one of the most famous actors of all time, and despite that, he completely disappears into the role of Raymond. Hoffman’s preparation for the role (he spent a year living with a real life autistic savant) is evident throughout the whole picture. And though Raymond is a very static character (more on that later), Hoffman finds a subtlety and range in his performance that is stunning.

However, despite his Best Actor win at the 1988 Academy Awards, Raymond is not the main character of the film. That’s Charlie, and it’s his arc of emotional growth that defines the film, for better and (slightly) for worse. As I said, Raymond is a static character. Any change he experiences over the course of the film is minor at best. He’s not capable of changing. He doesn’t operate under normal human terms. It’s Charlie’s turn from a greedy, narcissistic yuppie into a compassionate brother that cares more about being allowed to take care of his brother than his $3 million inheritance that makes the film. And unlike the way that Forrest touches everyone’s life, the relationship that forms between Raymond and Charlie is believable and emotionally wrenching. I am incapable of watching this film without crying every single time we make it to the custody hearing at the end of the film.

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It’s too easy to give all of the credit in this film to Dustin Hoffman. His performance is practically iconic at this point. But, let’s not forget that for a brief window in the late 1980s, Tom Cruise was an A-list talent, not just because of his stunning good looks (though that was clearly part of it), but also because of his natural talents as an actor. If you can watch Born on the Fourth of July and question Cruise’s acting creds, you don’t understand good acting. And because Charlie is the main character and because we have to believe his emotional journey of the film, the greatest burden of Rain Man nearly falls on Cruise’s shoulders. And though Charlie isn’t as great a Cruise creation as Ron Kovic, Cruise was expertly cast as the charming but soulless yuppie who is able to find himself in the presence of his brother.

Besides the fact that I don’t think Hoffman should have won Best Actor that year (he should have won Best Supporting Actor), my complaints about Rain Man are minimal at worst. Occasionally, the road trip segments of the film drag or seem repetitive. The business crisis that Charlie must race back to L.A. to thwart is thinly explained at best. And, despite my general love of this film’s emotional arc, occasionally it does seem like some moments are too neatly resolved. Particularly, any scene between Raymond and Charlie’s fiancee cross the line from genuine sentiment to Forrest Gump-style emotional manipulation (though, the movie is just as likely to subvert that later so maybe I shouldn’t actually complain). Whereas many film’s about mental disabilities unfairly play on audience’s emotions and sympathies, Rain Man manages to be painfully realistic yet still deliver a moving emotional through line. What more can you ask for?

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. So, some context for long-time readers about why I haven’t done any other blogging this week. As some of you may know, I work at a bar where there are slot machines. Generally, they’re fairly safe, but every once in a while, they get robbed. I was robbed Tuesday at knife point by a dude on heroin. He put a big-ass butcher knife against my ribcage and made me give him all the money in the bar. Anyways, for obvious reasons, my mind hasn’t been on blogging and so I apologize for that and for the possibility that this review is going to be a mess)

The 90s were the true hey-day of independent cinema. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still an extraordinary amount of great independent film-making being done today (Margaret, The Master, Winter’s Bone to name a few). But, the birth of modern indie cinema as we know it in the early 90s was a pure feat of wonder that was only multiplied ten fold when visionaries like the Weinsteins (over at Miramax) realized that there was a mainstream audience for these independently developed films. One of the most popular (and well made) indie dramas of the 90s, which was overwhelmed at the 1997 Academy Awards by a certain movie about a ship and an iceberg, was the Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting. And while age has worn a tiny amount of the luster off this still wonderful film, nothing can take away from the superb performances from Matt Damon (The Departed) and Robin Williams (Hook).

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As a film on the topic of undiscovered genius, Good Will Hunting is slightly hit-or-miss. But, as a film on the idea of social alienation and the long-term psychic costs of abuse and abandonment, Good Will Hunting remains one of the most emotionally powerful films of the 1990s. I bring up the aspect of undiscovered genius because though the film makes clear, time and time again, how absurdly smart Will is, those moments aren’t nearly as interesting as the time he spends with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Perhaps, there’s a slight coldness to the Stellan Skarsgaard (Thor) sections of the film, but mostly, the Oscar-winning script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Argo) shines so bright when we’re confronting the emotional problems of one of the most psychologically complex characters of the 90s that everything else just pales in comparison.

Unbeknownst to anyone but his circle of friends, a lonely, angry MIT janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is a genius of nearly Einsteinian proportions. When a Fields medal winning MIT Professor (Stellan Skarsgaard) puts a complex mathematical proof on a chalkboard at the beginning of a new semester, none of his students are able to solve the proof, but Will is. But, Will, an orphan with an angry streak a mile wide, doesn’t want to be the genius the world wants him to be. But, after punching a police officer, Will is given the choice between going to jail or going to math lessons with the professor as well as weekly therapy sessions. After pissing off every therapist who comes his way, Will finally meets his match in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) whose brand of tough love reaches the emotionally damaged young man. But, when a bubbling romance with a Harvard girl (Minnie Driver) revs up Will’s abandoonment issues, it threatens to undo all of the work he’s accomplished with Sean.

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First and foremost, I feel relatively certain in my proclamation that this is the best performance of Matt Damon’s career. The only reason I can’t say the same thing for Robin Williams is that Dead Poet’s Society exists. Will Hunting is the type of meaty, complex role that any young actor would kill for, and perhaps because he wrote the script with co-star Ben Affleck, Damon is acutely aware of the psychological pathology on display in his character (an abused child with a genius intellect with crippling abandonment and intimacy issues). Throw in the heart-wrenching vulnerability and emotional nakedness that he displays as his walls are slowly torn down, and it’s easy to see why Damon’s performance and the Will Hunting character have become an archetype in cinema for the troubled genius.

But, the best performance of the film is Robin William’s Sean Maguire. It speaks directly to Robin William’s immense talents as a performer that though he is most famous for comedic roles like Aladdin‘s Genie or the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam that he is also capable of producing jaw-dropping feats of dramatic acting. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1997 Academy Awards, and looking at the list of the other nominees, I can’t imagine anyone else winning. Once again, the role and the performance have become so iconic that the tough and troubled mentor has become its own archetype. Sean helps Will work through Will’s issues, but Will is just as instrumental in helping Sean work through his own problems. And William’s beautifully understated performance (which still allows him to utilize deadpan humor to great effect) is a wrenching and haunting portrait of despair and mourning.

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In fact, my only substantive complaint about the film is Gus van Sant’s direction which leans a little too far into 90s indie cliches that we’ve thankfully gotten rid of since then. It’s not that his direction is bad. There are inspired shots, but often the film feels leading. Where the screenplay is showing subtlety or restraint, the film’s visual composition (and particularly the score when it’s not Elliott Smith songs) are too obvious. It’s a similar complaint that I have with Forrest Gump, but clearly, Good Will Hunting is leagues better than that film. And, though I appreciate how Will’s romance with Skylar is used as a way to examine Will’s abandonment issues, Skylar’s characterization is fairly paper-thin. She is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, and in the face of the richness of Will and Sean, it’s a shame that such a major character seems so flatly drawn.

If by some stroke of poor luck, you’ve yet to see Good Will Hunting, you need to remedy that situation immediately. It is one of those rare defining films of a decade that is completely deserving of the praise heaped upon it. It’s not quite perfect. I think when I sat down to watch it the other night that I was likely to give it one of my rare “A+”s and it didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s still an absolutely superb film. It actually makes me sort of sad to think that Matt Damon’s early career dedication to subversive and complex roles like this and Rounders has disappeared as he’s took on the task of less complex, blockbuster roles (The Departed a major exception). I wish he would go back to the indies that helped turn him into the star he is now. And Good Will Hunting is 100% responsible for that.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my review proper begins. This is one of the most beloved films of the 90s and the viciousness with which I’m going to examine this film will probably offend its more hardcore fans. You’ve been warned. Also, though I usually attempt to review films purely on their own standards, Forrest Gump is such a cultural icon that I will have to also look at why that is and why I find that so distressing.)

If you were to ask the average movie-goer to compose a list of their top 10 films of the 90s, I’m probably not assuming too much when I say that Forrest Gump would be one of the films to make an appearance most often (and probably rank the highest on average). It is one of the most popular films, not just of the 1990s, but of the entire modern Hollywood era. The fact that this is true says something unspeakably sad about the tastes of the average movie fan. I’m concerned that I lack the vocabulary and the writing acumen in general to describe the melodramatic drivel that is the beating core of Forrest Gump in powerful enough terms. In my two and a half year tenure running this blog, there are probably less than five films that I can name that even come close to the blatant and cheap emotional manipulation that cranks Forrest Gump‘s gears.

Only the treacly garbage known as The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wear their absurd emotional and plot contrivances as the badges of honor that Forrest Gump so shamelessly employs. Forrest Gump is sappier than a maple tree in New England come syrup season. Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing in films. Movies like Monsieur Ibrahim or Cinema Paradiso are capable of generating real, strong emotions without relying on cheap, unearned histrionics to achieve that emotional payoff. Cheap sentimentality is achieved when writers and directors exploit tragedy and suffering without adding anything new to storytelling conventions that have been abused literally for centuries now or when a film is so patently unrealistic but still set up to evoke a specific set of emotional reactions that it has no right trying to grasp. Forrest Gump commits both sins of sentimentality and it became nearly unwatchable during this particular viewing.

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If, by some miracle you haven’t seen Forrest Gump (hopefully this encourages you to not waste your time watching it), the plot is as simple as it is absolutely fucking absurd. Forrest Gump (Big‘s Tom Hanks) is a sweet and innocent man born in the 1940s in a small town Alabama. But Forrest was born with an IQ of 75 and were it not for his loving mother (Lincoln‘s Sally Field), Forrest wouldn’t have been allowed to attend normal schools. But with the help of his mother who pushes him to not let anyone put him down because of his IQ and the fact that he has to wear leg braces, Forrest learns how to get by. He’s assisted in his childhood by his friend Jenny (played as an adult by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Robin Wright Penn), a troubled girl physically and sexually abused by her father, but it’s when Forrest becomes a teenager that he sets on a world of adventures all his own.

It turns out that once Forrest loses his leg braces, he can run incredibly fast. And he becomes a star collegiate football player and even gets to meet President Kennedy (the first in a string of presidents and celebrities that he’ll meet) as part of the All-American Team. And after he graduates from college, Forrest is drafted to Vietnam where he meets Bubba (Justified‘s Mykelti Williamson), a shrimp-obsessed black man, and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), a death-seeking officer from a long-line of soldiers. Forrest becomes a war hero by saving most of his platoon after a Viet Cong ambush and is even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Forrest becomes a world-class Ping Pong player and is involved in more or less every major historical event from the 1950s up until the 1980s.

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There’s probably, actually a good movie in there somewhere if you were to remove all of the bits where Forrest finds himself involved in literally practically every major historical event of the decade. The idea of a mentally disabled man struggling to find his place in life all while trying to come to terms with his love for a woman that is not mentally ill… there’s a good screenplay hidden in there somewhere. But, at literally (I’m probably going to abuse that word during this review) every opportunity Forrest Gump chooses to forego authenticity in favor of outrageous coincidences and unearned emotion. Every emotional scene is underwritten, over-directed, and pompously scored. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling in a scene (which should be impossible considering the film’s overbearing theatrics), don’t worry; the constantly obvious score will simplify things for you.

And, with a handful of exceptions, the performances are also all too on-the-nose. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for this film, and ignoring for a second that this means both John Travolta and Tim Robbins couldn’t win for their roles in Pulp Fiction and Shawshank, there’s hardly anything great about Hanks’s performance. With the exception of his scene at Jenny’s grave at the end of the film (SPOILER i suppose but I don’t care), he never taps into any genuine emotion in his performance as Forrest. Maybe also when Bubba died. He plays a mentally ill person well, but great acting is synonymous with powerful emotion (even if that power is tapped into in a subtle way like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master), and Hanks’s performance is mostly bland from an emotional perspective throughout. Of course, Forrest is a bland and passive protagonist so that makes sense.

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It should be no surprise then that the only two memorable performances in the film come from the movie’s two best characters. She’s hated by most of the film’s fandom (because she is an actually flawed and broken heroine compared to the perfect but slow Forrest), but Jenny is arguably the most interesting character in the film. Coming from a broken home and making a series of endless bad choices who can only find loves in the arms of a man who may not really understand how love works (despite his famous quote), Robin Wright Penn captured all of the loneliness and desperation that would consume a woman in her shoes. And, of course, Gary Sinise is spectacular as the embittered and cynical Lieutenant Dan who rages against God and Forrest himself for not allowing him to die in the jungles of Vietnam and forcing him to spend the rest of his days as a cripple.

Of course, I can’t make the argument that Forrest Gump isn’t a well-made film from a technical perspective. From the way that Robert Zemeckis seamlessly integrated Tom Hanks into actual classic TV and news footage to the generally beautiful cinematography, Forrest Gump is a competently well-made film. In fact, the skill with which it was made is part of the reason that I suspect so many people are tricked into believing the emotion of the film. Robert Zemeckis is such a skilled director that he utilizes every cinematic trick of the trade to elicit the reactions he wants because the writing of the film sure as hell isn’t strong enough to do the job. And, obviously, the movie has an absolutely killer soundtrack of the best songs of the 60s and 70s once the movie makes its way to Vietnam.

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More than 1300 words is plenty on a film that I distinctly dislike, but because Forrest Gump is so well-loved I had to explain in as clear a language as possible why this film is, from every objective standard I can think of, a total train-wreck.It’s movie trickery that has fooled people into thinking this is some type of profound and grand film. And that’s funny because almost any time the movie espouses some bit of homespun wisdom (usually from Forrest’s mother), it’s contradicted less than ten minutes later. I apologize if you’re a lover of Forrest Gump and this review offends your adoration of this film; I used to like it myself. But, after this particular viewing and as a much more sophisticated movie watcher than I was ten years ago (when I last saw the film), there’s no possible conclusion I could come to than that Forrest Gump cheaply plays with audience’s emotion and uniformly never earns the emotional payoff it so desires.

Final Score: C