Archive for the ‘Film Analysis’ Category

Film Analysis: Michael Mann’s Portrayal of Los Angeles

Director and executive producer Mann arrives at Hollywood premiere of HBO series "Luck" in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is an overpopulated city, yet it is depicted as a silent milieu of isolation. Mann provides us with a canvas of the great city, only one we’ve never laid eyes on before. A car driving through an empty highway, flickering city lights of a silent night, an empty apartment reflecting an endless ocean, airport runway lights fading to complete darkness; it’s all there to inject the viewer with a mood much similar to what the characters feel throughout this tragic journey.

Visually, Heat is treated like a film noir and so we wind up with a neo-noir. The conventions and elements of that genre are crystal clear from the hard-boiled detective to the urban setting, the interplay of lights and shadows in the final scene to the neon lights of the dark corners of an urban city. However, there’s certain uniqueness to the mood and feel of the film due to the icy-blue palette apparent in the atmospheric tone. Michael Mann used many paintings as inspirations to the look of the film, most notably with the shot of Neil facing the ocean in the background with a gun on a table in the foreground which is strikingly identical to Alex Colville’s 1967 painting Pacific.

“I love Los Angeles.Eighty per cent of it is unexplored. People who make films don’t go out into the city. They think they do but they don’t.You just drive down the right streets and you’ll see images of alienation. But they are beautiful images of alienation. They become paradoxical but they present themselves to you.” – Michael Mann

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While Heat is Mann’s quintessential Los Angeles film, Collateral is his exploration of the city’s darker side. In many ways both films serve as extensions to the feel and atmosphere of an everyday city like Los Angeles. Like the former, the two main characters in Collateral are loners desperately trying to find their place in a city that has turned its back on its people. Mann uses similar wide night-shots of the flickering lights of an endless cityscape. Cars isolated from the rest of the world flow through the freeways in silence. One of the cars driving through Los Angeles at night time is a taxi containing the protagonist cab driver and antagonist hitman. Mann shot all of the exterior scenes using digital video because he believes DV reacts much better to low-light shots than film stock. The result is a look so unique and unfamiliar, there’s a sense of being there on location.

The mirroring parallels with Heat are both textual and visual. Textual in the sense that Vincent (Tom Cruise) acts like the efficient Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and when they talk about their history, it becomes clear that both share the same childhood. McCauley ends with “I got a brother somewhere.” Now in terms of visuals, they both journey through the streets of Los Angeles dedicated to what they do best. They also share the same cinematic fate at the end for they meet their demise at transportation stations, one at LAX and the other in a subway train. 

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That is not to say Mann had nothing new to express about Los Angeles. Through his alternative vision we see the real politics and sociological aspects of L.A. on screen. Instead of showcasing the hot summer beaches, we drive by the consistent black neighbourhoods, Korean nightclubs, and Latino shops of the city. Watching Heat or Collateral is as close as one could get to actually being there, because the viewer experiences the sad beauty of the city through Mann’s signature stylistic approach. The nature of both films is different, but the feel and look of the city matchesbecause Los Angeles has the same isolating effect onboth set of characters. One thing is for sure, film fans from all over the world will make a tourist spot out of the ‘Fever’ Jazz Club featured in Collateral as they did with the ‘Kate Mantilini’ restaurant from the famous dinner confrontation in Heat.

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Film Analysis: “Grave of the Fireflies”

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I’ll go ahead and say it: Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli, is the greatest animated film ever made. It is the most haunting, heart-wrenching and tragic tale ever told on film, and that includes live-action films, as well. If you thought Mufasa’s death or Bambi losing her mum was too painful to watch, you haven’t felt true sorrow. But that’s not a fair comparison; the truth is, it is unfair to compare Grave of the Fireflies with the greatest work of Walt Disney or any animated film for that matter. This isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a devastating war film that has the power to make a grown man cry, sob and weep. I’m not ashamed in admitting Grave of the Fireflies brings tears to my eyes every single time I watch it.

The fact that it’s all based on a true story makes it all the more harrowing and disturbing. Don’t let my words scare you off, though. Grave of the Fireflies encapsulates so much humanity and beauty, I’m certain, without a reasonable doubt, that if you make it all the way to the end, it will make you a better person. I hope this is enough of an intro to make you watch this film. If you haven’t, I suggest returning to this point in my review after having done so, as I will explore some of the film’s deeper themes.

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The film opens with a slap on the face. You see our main character sitting against a pillar in a train station. His clothes are torn, his body is covered in dirt, his frail arms rest flimsily next to him, his face lifeless against his chest. “September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.” How often does a film start with such a powerful prologue? Everything about this masterpiece is a rarity. The animation comes from a studio that constantly raises the benchmark of animation. In fact, each and every drawn shot is worthy of being framed against a wall. But what makes this film stand tall above anything remotely similar is the shocking subject matter. Grave of the Fireflies is set during the World War II, when the US was firebombing Japan in a desperate attempt to end the war.

The whole story is told through Seita’s perspective, and I mentioned before that this is based on a true story, which makes the opening death scene a cinematic metaphor. The real Seita, Akiyuki Nosaka, survived long enough to tell his story. Nosaka wrote the material this film was based on in the late 60s, and maybe the prologue symbolises the weight this tragic incident had on him’ nothing was probably ever the same again. Like Seita, Nosaka lost his little sister to the shattering effects of war. It is widely known that Nosaka wrote Grave of the Fireflies to come to terms with this loss. He blames himself for her death.

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I say he lost his sister to the shattering effects of war, because war didn’t kill Setsuko, the effect it had on people did. This film is often regarded as an anti-war film, but that’s an inaccurate generalisation. We don’t witness any battles or soldiers marching into the frontlines of combat. The enemy flies above, but they’re not characterised in a villainous manner. War is a mere backdrop in this survival account, and the central theme here is how war temporarily changes who we are. It blinds us from all things human. It turns us into cruel selfish beasts, unsympathetic to the desperate needs of others. The kindness and compassion in human souls evaporate into thin air the second we are communally put in a situation where it’s every man for himself. Priorities eclipse our minds, and the fear of regret blocks our thoughts from the reality that we’re all in this together. It is only together, and with the help of one another, that we can all survive through our darkest chapters without being cursed with future guilt, shame, and remorse.

This central theme is evident right from the opening shots. We see bystanders regard Seita’s death with no empathy whatsoever. Bodies are being looked upon like they’re nothing but garbage. “Disgusting.” – “These bums are a disgrace.” – “This one’s a goner too.” At first, these remarks may come across strange to the viewer, but when Takahata takes us through the journey, we understand the sad nature of this destination. We witness the gradual surge of selflessness in the people of a bombed village. It starts with their aunt. At first, she’s welcoming and caring. Soon enough, she is ripping them off, and cursing them. She constantly mocks and humiliates Seita. Tells him he should be going to school when the school has been burned down, that he should work when he’s only 14 years of age. Eventually, she’s depriving them from food, hiding and saving the food for her own family. We hear whispers of the siblings being a burden in their house, more mouths to feed. Seita, being the son of a general, decides to take his sister and leave their aunt’s house with his pride still intact.

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The transformational effect of war is also manifested in the scenes where Seita seeks the help of a doctor. When he stands above the body of his bleeding mother, the doctors delivers the bad news showing genuine sadness in their inability to help. In a much later scene, Seita seeks the help of a doctor to save his sister from dying. The news delivery is cold, like death is inevitable. No medicine is needed, only food, so the doctor could lend a helping hand, but he wouldn’t; he has his own troubles to worry about. Seita yells in frustration, but to no avail.

Seita is reduced to a thief at one point, but the viewer forgives him, because we have experienced the harsh realities of the war’s aftermath. It makes me think of how many times people have looked down at poor people stealing bread, when we have no clue what has led them to arrive to such last resorts. Nevertheless, Seita is beat near an inch of his life. Setsuko sees his face all swollen, and asks him if she should get him a doctor. When Seita hears these words coming from his little sister, he breaks down. No kid should worry about seeing a doctor.

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The only hope for humanity in this story exists in the innocence and kindness of their relationship. Children are uncorrupted by the ugly world we live in. The purity of their innocence is what makes the nature of evil incomprehensible to their minds. The older we get, the less innocent we become; we’re built that way to endure the harsh realities of life. There’s another scene where Seita breaks down for the same reasons. He sees Setsuko digging a grave for the fireflies that have lit up the darkness of their shelter the night before. As the fireflies are pushed into their graveyard, we see a mirroring shot of piles of bodies being dropped into a massive hole. “Mama is in a grave too. She told me. She said mama died and she’s in a grave now.” It’s just not right to hear such heavy words coming out of a child deprived of the joys of childhood.

There are many haunting images in this film, one of the most hard to watch ones is Setsuko sucking on marbles like they’re candy or playing with bowls of dirt like its rice. What follows next is perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film. The war has ended and Seita has managed to get his hands on some real food. He tries to feed his sister a watermelon, but she’s too tired to quench her thirst. Setsuko sleeps and we learn that she never woke up. Setsuko’s last words are, “Seita, thank you.” Even in her last moments, she shows the kindness, innocence, and gratitude absent in adults during those hard times.

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Later on, we see the only scene that isn’t seen through the eyes of Seita. In a touching montage, the viewer sees how Setsuko spent her time in the shelter absent of her brother. Watching her play around the way any child would is plain and simply beautiful. At one point in the film, Setsuko looks up at Seita, her eyes a blink away from sending tears streaming down her cheeks. “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” Seita has no answer, and neither do I. We see two fireflies dancing around; the two dancing lights fade out in the darkness.

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Film Analysis: “Running Scared”

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With the recent passing of Paul Walker, I thought it would be best to honor his memory by visiting his most accomplished film to date. Running Scared is a cinematic beast that flew under the radar and has since earned a small cult following that will probably breed more fans as time goes by. History won’t remember Paul Walker for his Fast and Furious movies; this is the film people will be talking about for years to come.

Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared is one of the most intense gangster films to come out of Hollywood. It is fearless,graphic, gritty, and relentless in its depiction of evil. Right from the beginning, Kramer locks the viewer into a dark world of abusive fathers, junkies, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, pedophiles, dirty cops, Italian mafia, the Russian mob, and Mexican gangs.

The plot kicks off with a shootout between two mobs and dirty cops. Following the shootout, an Italian crime boss asks his soldier to dispose of a gun used to gun down the corrupt cops. Here we are introduced to Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), the thug with the task. When Gazelle fails to get rid ofthe gun, all hell breaks loose. He ends up running from one shitty neighbourhood to the next in desperate search for that gun.

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The gun in that sense is the MacGuffin. Its sole purpose is to drive the story forward into unknown territory. If you’re not familiar with the cinematic term MacGuffin, it was originally coined by Hitchock and refers to an object or a plot device used to move a chain of events forward. Some of cinema’s most iconic “MacGuffins” are the envelope full of money in Psycho, the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane, the ring in Lord of the Rings, the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Marcellius Wallace’s suitcase inPulp Fiction.

Filmmakers often plant a “MacGuffin” into their screenplays to make it easier to maneuver the story into whichever scenario they want to shoot. You move the “MacGuffin” and the viewer is thrown into an entirely different scene without even noticing. It simply puts a cause to any effect, and Running Scared is perhaps the best example of a “MacGuffin” driven story. The gun falls into the hands of every nasty being in this planet’s shittiest neighbourhood. This elevates the tension to a whole new level of heart-pounding suspense.

Make no mistake; this isn’t a film to be taken seriously. Choosing to watch this film is the equivalent of picking to the ride the meanest roller coaster in the theme park. The viewer has no choice, you won’t be smoothly pulled into a well thought out ride, Running Scared shoves you from one absurd scene to the next with absolutely no warning of what will happen next.In that sense, it is classic example of pure unpredictable entertainment, an exemplar of film as the ultimate pastime.

In all fairness, Kramer does add an artistic touch that differentiates his film from the countless Guy Richie copycats elevating it into cult status. German expressionism clearly influenced the way the film was shot. Most of the scenes are seen through the eyes of children. This allows Kramer to showcase his story like it’s a grim nightmarish fairy tale. Characters with evil intensions move unrealistically, and cast expressionistic shadows revealing the true nature of who they are.

This is evident in the beggar incident and the infamous pedophile couple scene, one of the creepiest scenes of any film you’ll ever see. In fact, if you look closer, you’ll spot a reference to the German fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. The name on the prescription bottle a kid finds in the pedophiles home reads “Hansel”. In the fairy tale, a witch lures Hansel and Gretel into her house using candy in order to eat them, similar to how the pedophiles lure the kids into their home using ice cream and countless toys.

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There are other symbolic aspects scattered throughout the film, the most obvious of which is the name of our main character, Gazelle. Get it? Gazelles run around scared when wolves hunt them. In many ways, Running Scared is a lot smarter than it looks. If you look at it from one angle, it’s a crime film with a comic book feel to it, a nightmarish fairy tale from another angle, and a Hollywood satire if you look beneath the surface.

Everything in Running Scared is exaggerated and overblown excessively. The violence is bone crunching, the profanity is delivered in extraordinary detail, and clichésand stereotypes are everywhere to be seen. I honestly think this was done intentionally to mock Hollywood and its alpha male fixation on graphic violence, Hollywood’s depiction of women as sex objects, and an overused offensive verbal formula that ultimately implants stereotypes into culture. In Running Scared, women are almost always referred to as bitches, African Americans get stamped with the N-word, and Italians are portrayed as ruthless gangsters whacking people left and right. Running Scared goes as far as mocking studios forcing unrealistic happy endings on screenplays just to play it safe.

With repeated viewings, Running Scared turns more into a dark comedy than anything else. Each time you watch it, you’ll be caught off guard one way or another. In this last viewing, I noticed that Walker uses about every transitional technique in the editing book. This is a fearless film that will sucker punch you with its staggering visuals and continue throwing its fists at you after you’ve been knocked out.

Film Analysis: “Gravity”

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is shaping up to be the best-reviewed film of the year. The bulk of the praise is going to the groundbreaking photography and Sandra Bullock’s moving performance. As the posters will let you know, everyone in Hollywood is over the moon for this film. Some have been calling it the best space film ever made. Quite frankly, I’m not so sure they got the whole point of the film. It does portray space in a very realistic manner, but it’s far from a “space film.” In fact, it’s more of a psychological drama; it just happens to be set in space.

Gravity is one of the most inspirational motion pictures to come out in some time. It hits a chord with the subconscious mind and it’s not because of the master-class of cinematography unraveling before your eyes (it does help though), but it’s because it aims to teach us something about humanity. Gravityis about that precise moment you choose to move forward, the moment you choose to let go of the sorrow that has eclipsed your life for far too long.

The plot unfolds with our two main characters in space. Right away you get to know the type of people they are. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is there to get things done and leave. She doesn’t take a moment to gasp at the beauty surrounding her. In fact, she seems kind of uptight. She wants to finish what she’s there for and get on with it.

Meanwhile, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) floats around exchanging life stories with the space station in Houston. You can tell right away that he’s a free spirit. He’s the type of person who lives every day to the fullest; a guy with a million stories to tell and not a worry in his mind. When they hear of meteors potentially shooting their way, he reassuringly tells Stone to let the guys back in Houston worry about it. Stone lives to work, Kowalski, on the other hand, works to live.

Cinematically, this contrast in character is displayed in metaphorical shots of Stone stuck to a piece of machinery not that different from who she is; its sole purpose in life is to get a job done. On the contrary, Kowaski carelessly floats around like a free spirit. Curaon manages to fully establish two characters in a matter of seconds. The fact that he tells us everything we need to know about his characters using nothing but cinematic imagery evidently shows us that we are about to see the work of an efficient master, dominating his artistic form.

In perhaps the most horrifying moment of any film this year, they get a message: “Explorer, this is Houston. Mission Abort. Repeat. Mission Abort!” In a matter of seconds, a shower of meteors hit them in a breathtakingly catastrophic sequence. The usual soothing silence of space has never been portrayed more chillingly.

Stone follows Kowalski’s instructions and detaches, ultimately floating uncontrollably into blackness. The beauty of Alfonso Cuaron’s symbolic images surprises me with each subsequent viewing. She floats uncontrollably because she is not in control of her life. Kowalski on the other hand is complete control. He comes to her rescue and drags her back to the scene.

The metaphorical journey continues as they voyage to another space station. Kowalski asks about Stone’s past and if there’s anyone back home looking up at the sky, wondering when she’ll return, and we finally understand why she seems to have given up on life. No one is waiting for her.

We learn that she used to have a daughter but lost her in a playground accident. “All I do is work, and when I get home, I just drive. I was driving when I got the call, so ever since, that’s what I do. I drive.” One can’t help but feel sorry for her. The viewer misjudged her. It’s sad how we judge people not knowing what they’ve been through and how they came to be where they are now, but now we understand when and why she gave up on living.

We get the feeling that she has been grieving ever since. Coping with grief is the most painful of all human emotions, but it’s something we all eventually go through. For how long one gets stuck in sorrow depends on the gravity of the situation (no pun intended). Grief comes in many forms, be it divorce, or the loss of a friend you once held dear. Stone is going through the worst kind of grief, the death of a loved one.

Some people never emerge out of this state of mind; they linger in it and make it their home in what ends up being a very depressing life. It makes perfect sense, why she’s been stuck in this state for so long. When we unexpectedly lose someone, it is instantaneous but long lingering. It’s just how we naturally process the emotion. You don’t lose the person in one shot, you lose the person in small painful doses over time- when she goes to bed and stops hearing the cries of her baby, when her child’s scent starts to fade awayher clothes, when memories haunt heras she drives. It’s not easy to let go of things right away, but eventually it all comes down to whether you’ll mourn the rest of your days or learn to let go and move forward.

The first time Kowalski saved Stone’s life was earlier, when he told her to detach. The second time is in another post impact scene that mirrors the first. Only this time, the roles are reversed. He’s the one about to drift into infinite blackness. We see that he’s dragging her with him and the only chance for any of them to survive is if he cuts off the rope. In other words, Kowalski saves her life again through detachment. It’s not by preventing her to float with him into space, but by teaching her that sometimes it’s ok to let go, both literally and metaphorically. “You have to learn to let go,” he says. It’s a beautiful scene.

This is the turning point of our main character’s psychological journey. Stone works her way into a spacecraft and takes off her suit in a hurry. As she floats inside in her bare skin, her posture resembles that of an unborn baby floating in a womb. Stone is reborn. She may not know it yet, but she is about to start a new life. When she fails to get a spacecraft to start up again, she almost gives up again. We see her crying as she communicates with “another world.” We hear the voice of a baby. Stone lets it all out; she laughs, cries and howls like it’s in human beings’ primitive nature to do so.

In the following scene, just as she’s about to accept the fact that she’ll be stuck in this state forever, we see the return of Kowalski. It is clearly a vision and Kowalski is merely her mind pushing her to do what he tried to teach her when sacrificing his life for hers. “What’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. It doesn’t get any rougher than that. It’s still a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, than you got to just get on with it. Sit back. Enjoy the ride. You got to plant both your feet on the ground and start living life.”

Eventually she decides to fight for it. She guides herself through Kowalski. Her subconscious mind digs deep into her memory of what she learnt in boot camp. She gets the thing working and as she shoots towards earth she faces her final step.  “You’ll see a little girl, with brown hair, lots of knots. She didn’t like to brush it. You tell her I found her red shoe. She was so worried about that red shoe. And it was under the bed the whole time.” Stone is letting go.

The film ends with Stone crashing into the ocean. She takes her suit off once again and floats back to the surface. The ocean isn’t much different from space when you think about it, it’s uninhabitable, there’s no oxygen, and we hover in what feels like almost zero gravity. Cuaron grounds his message to our world. This could very well have worked as a tale of two people trying to reach the surface, thousands of metres beneath the ocean. The truth is, it is a psychological journey that can, and eventually will, happen to all of us anywhere, on any given day.

We see her break the surface. The mise-en-scene of the whole film has a greyish feel to it. In this particular scene, the colours are vibrant and lively. The journey is over and the future is bright. Stone struggles against gravity at first, but eventually she does the very thing her subconscious self (Kowalski) previously asked for. We see a close up shot of Stone planting her feet to the ground and moving forward.

Film Analysis: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

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Every couple of years I stumble upon a film that transcends its traditional entertainment purposes and goes for something more divine, ambitious and philosophical. When a film like this comes along, it reassures me that film is indeed the greatest art form of our time. Movies that had that awe-inspiring effect on me include: “Last Year At Marienbad”, “The Exterminating Angel”, “Persona”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Dark City”, “Enter the Void”, “The Thin Red Line”, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Synecdoche, New York”. I like to call them life-changers.

The first time I watched Michael Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” it felt like a life changer. I remember the night I saw it, too. I couldn’t sleep all night due to perpetual thoughts rushing through my head. I used to experience that during the last minutes of an exam I couldn’t finish on time. That night, I needed more time to grasp the film’s brilliant originality and fascinating implications. The second time I saw it, I had a few friends over and it wasn’t as impressive. Now, six years later I’ve given it another shot. Surprisingly, it had that same initial effect on me. This almost never happens to me, and I think I understand why it enchanted me the first and last times. It is one of those rare films, I’d rather watch alone than with an audience.

It reaches for something personal like troubling memories buried deep in our psyche. It is a film that demands the presence of thoughts we put aside when surrounded by people, things we only think about when we’re alone, buried in everlasting thoughts. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is the rarest of all films, a therapeutically liberating work of art.

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Charlie Kauffman’s marvelous screenplay revolves around Joel (Jim Carrey), a soloist stuck in the repetitive formula of everyday life till he meets the spontaneously carefree Clementine (Kate Winslet). Their relationship escalates into a supposedly dead-end when he learns that she had him erased from her memory. Furious and confused, he contacts the inventor of this advanced process, Dr. Howard Mierzwaik (Tom Wilkinson). Out of sheer desperation he resorts to the only logical solution at the time, removing her from his memory as well. But as he re-experiences the passionate days of their earlier relationship, he falls in love with her all over again.

The film then takes a Hitchcockian turn and becomes a man-on-the run film, only this time the protagonists are running from an untouchable entity. They race from one memory to the next desperately escaping the inevitable erasing process. It’s one of the most original and fresh ideas ever shot on film. If you haven’t seen this modern masterpiece, I strongly suggest you stop reading at this point, as I will explore some of the film’s more thought provoking themes.

One of the philosophical questions this film asks is whether we are merely the sum of our memories or if there’s more to us than a summation of past experiences. Would erasing an incident from our micro-history do us any good? Would a woman erasing the memory of a rape make her happier or would removing the incident do more damage to her life than the actual incident itself? Hence, she wouldn’t have learned anything from it or become the stronger person she is today. Is ignorance indeed bliss?

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The film ultimately arrives to the conclusion that no, having a spotless mind does not bring eternal sunshine. You may forget a past memory but you can’t forget the impulses, instincts and emotions that arose from that past incident. They are in some sense untouchable because they shape who we are. Take for example, the simultaneous subplot involving Mary (Kirsten Dunst) discovering that she had her love affair with Dr. Mierzwaik erased. She arrives to that discovery through her love to him. The weak link in Lacuna’s process is that it successfully erases memories but can’t erase feelings.

Another heartbreaking scene that explores the system’s imperfection is when Joel and Clementine finally bid farewell inside his head. She leans in and whispers, “Meet me in Montauk.” You see, the Clementine guiding his escape is merely a projection in Joel’s mind. She represents his will to hold on and he does so through what he knows of her spontaneous personality.

When they challenge the erasing process by hiding in childhood remembrances and other “off the map” memories, the escape route is always suggested by Clementine. Joel would never arrive to such conclusions himself, but he subconsciously asks himself what would Clementine do and acts upon it. So when she whispers that final line inside his head, what he’s really doing is implanting an impulse; something Lacuna can’t touch.

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The film opens with a post-erasing scene. On Valentine Day, Joel feels the impulse of going to Montauk instead of working and there he meets Clementine. She too implanted that impulse during her erasing process and it’s such a beautiful encounter. That cold day on the beach, they fall for each other all over again. Both Joel and Clementine do in fact win at the end, implanting that impulse defeats the system in a final attempt of desperation.

In that “second” first encounter, it’s almost like a hidden magnetic force pulls them together. This is portrayed cinematically through brilliant use of music. Music plays when they talk and pauses when they pause. Joel and Clementine click in a disguised coincidence, a natural encounter.

In another simultaneous subplot, Patrick, one of the Lacuna technicians, uses the dialogue he knows from Joel and Clementine’s real initial encounter to sweep her off her feet. The plan backfires on him and only fuels her confusion and anger. I believe that we as human beings have an uncanny ability to detect bullshit and truth in words. We think spoken words is the only way of communicating but there’s an invisible energy that comes from body language, the way we say things, and the way we look at a person that tells us if there’s any truth in what is being communicated. This energy is something beyond what we hear or see; it’s something we feel, a feeling of truth.

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My favorite scene in the film is when they’re stuck in their first memory, which is also the last memory they helplessly witness getting erased. Both characters recite some of the dialogue of his memory, but occasionally, Joel becomes self aware, looks at Clementine and pours out his commentary thoughts. As they sit in front of the ocean, she looks at him and says, “This is it Joel, it’s gonna be gone soon.” A sad smile eclipses his face when he replies, “I know.” But it’s the last exchange that really hit the mark with me. “What do we do?” she asks. To which he replies, “Enjoy it.” Joel gives up fighting instantly and chooses to enjoy the little time they have left together and it’s utterly heartbreaking.

Ironically, this reminded me of one of my childhood memories with my dad who’s a doctor of nuclear medicine; it’s when they use nuclear energy in a positive way to cure cancer. I remember when he told me that not all cancer patients choose to fight the disease and there’s nothing he can do about that, it’s their call. As a young kid, I couldn’t get that through my head. It just seemed inconceivable at the time. Whatever reasons they may have, I think it’s their right to do so. Whether it’s never-ending surgeries that constantly fail or hectic chemotherapy that leaves them miserable in their potential last days, it’s their right to let go and enjoy the little time they have left in this world.

Letting go is one of the hardest things a person can do. It doesn’t mean they’re giving up, it means they’re moving on. We hold on to things we value as if they will cease to exist when we let go. The truth is they won’t. Letting go or giving up isn’t an act of cowardice; quite often it’s an act of supreme bravery. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” tells us to accept things as they are and make the most of what we have when all hope is lost.

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I remember seeing my dad sitting on the living room couch as he watched the news. He’s one of the most positive and cheerful people I know and it often puzzled me knowing what he does for a living. I asked him if dealing with dying people on a daily basis is a depressing job. He replied something along the lines of “We tend to keep a lighthearted environment at the hospital.” When I asked him if breaking the bad news is the worst part of his job, he told me that it was, but every once in a while he breaks out great news and it makes it all worth it. The ups and down of life apply everywhere. In the case of this film, it’s in a relationship. As Joel discovers throughout his mental journey, the ups are sometimes worth all the downs.

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, Tears from the depths of some devine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In looking on the happy autumn fields, And thinking of the days that are no more.” – Alfred Tennyson

After a break up, the very memories you once cherished, the ones that drew a smile on your face whenever you remembered them seem none existent. That’s probably due to the recently bad incident towering and blocking all things wonderful from your thoughts. I think it’s an act of self-preservation to let the bad memories stick and allow great ones to slip through our fingers. It makes moving on easier.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
 I took the one less traveled by And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

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After Joel and Clementine learn they’ve had their memories erased because things just didn’t work out, they somehow choose to travel that same road again anyway. I think it’s a perfect ending to a perfect film. As we’re so often told, it’s about the journey not the destination. They know what is waiting at the end of that road and they choose to walk through it anyway. The journey has been erased and therefore, they choose to re-experience it. Perhaps it’s to arrive at that conclusion because that’s the only way they’ll understand the nature of their previous destination. Or maybe, they share a tiny ounce of mutual hope. After all, they know the pitfalls and hidden traps on that road from listening to their Lacuna tapes. Dodging them is all that needs to be done to arrive at a different destination. This is precisely how second chances are meant to be taken.

Whenever, I watch this film it steers my eyes away from the empty half of the glass of water and makes me acknowledge that there’s a full half right below. For that very reason, I’m eternally grateful for its existence.

Film Analysis: “The Grey”

On his last day on the job, John Ottway sits in a bar full of workers. Most are involved in a violent brawl, but he sits alone isolated and unbothered by his surroundings. His sad eyes seem lost in thoughts of hopelessness. As he walks out in the cold mist to a remote spot, we learn of a suicide letter he’s written to the wife who left him. Ottway holds the barrel of a rifle in his mouth and closes his eyes, ready to pull the trigger. The unlikeliest of signs makes him remove the rifle, the howl of a wolf in the dark.
Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” tells the ironic story of a suicidal man who ends up fighting for his life after a plane crashes into the wolf-infested wilderness of Alaska. I don’t know about you, but the first half of that sentence interests me more than the second half.

 

No family, no friends, nothing waiting for him, just the memory of a brighter past. Why would a man who got stripped down till he had nothing left, a man seriously contemplating suicide, end up fighting for his own survival? The question left me thinking of this philosophically heavy film all year. People walked into the movie expecting a plane crash and Liam Neeson fist fighting wolves and got a much deeper art film.

 

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I’ve read countless reviews of people criticizing the film’s harsh depiction of wolves and how the behavior of wolves is portrayed unrealistically, but if that’s what they think the film is about, then sadly they only see the surface.

“Jaws” isn’t about realistic shark behavior. Its sole purpose isn’t to portray great white sharks as man-eaters; it’s about characters overcoming their inner demons. Chief Brody facing his fear of going to the water, Quint dealing with his past experience at the Indianapolis; “Jaws” is about characters facing their fears instead of running away from them. What distinguishes “The Grey” from all the “Jaws” copycats is that it isn’t about man vs. nature, but man vs. himself.

If you still haven’t seen this modern masterpiece, I suggest you stop reading at this point to avoid spoilers. Make no mistake; “The Grey” is not a slow film. It features very well constructed scenes of intense action and sheer horror. Take the plane crash for example.

 

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It is without a doubt the most horrifying plane crash ever depicted on film. The camera pans back the dark corridor of the plane’s dim interior. We see the passenger TV flickering like there’s a loss of electricity. The passengers are silent and unnervingly asleep because of the turbulence. We see cold air exhaled from the passengers as we move all the way to our protagonist, who too is in deep sleep. A sudden drop and the disturbing sound of power failure interrupt his calm dream.

The director wisely avoids cutting to an exterior shot of the plane plunging into its demise. We’re kept in the plane, with the characters, and it’s as close as a director could get to have his audience strapped in seatbelts.

This scene is a testament to the power and importance of sound. Another impressive scene that makes good use of sound takes part much later in the film. After the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere they set out to the distant woods to avoid any more wolf attacks.

 

 

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As soon as they arrive they make a quick fire to fend off the wolves chasing them. We don’t actually see the wolves, but Carnahan literally tell a story through sound. Using only growls and cries, we learn that one of the wolves tries to take on the alpha male but ultimately fails.

 

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After repeated viewings, I noticed that there’s a lot more to this significant scene than meets the eye, or ear for that matter. The mirroring scene that follows shows tough guy Diaz (Frank Grillo) as he challenges the dominance of the alpha male of the human pack, Ottway.

Throughout the film the tension between Ottway and Diaz builds up to this critical moment. It all starts right after the plane crashes. When Ottway notices Diaz is stealing a calfskin wallet off one of the dead bodies, he confronts him. “I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds. And you’re going to swallow a lot of blood for a fucking billfold.”

 

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With Liam Neeson’s badass delivery, Diaz wisely throws the wallet away. The next morning the verbal confrontations continue when Diaz disagrees with Ottway’s decision to leave the crash site, “Nobody nominated you shit by the way!” Frank Grillo delivers a magnificent supporting performance and seeing his character arc from beginning to end is bound to pull a few heartstrings.

The verbal duels eventually lead to a physical one which mirrors the unseen incidents happening within the wolf pack. Ottway ultimately tells him that it’s okay to be scared. Diaz takes it the wrong way and thinks he’s questioning his masculinity. One thing leads to another and the alpha wolf interrupts their brawl. The wolf takes a step forward, Diaz takes one back.

The film has a very interesting take on masculinity. Hollywood has always displayed men to be brave and fearless, and for some reason this has sunk itself into the human psyche. We now attribute real men with false characteristics. And here comes Ottway, who’s emotionally beaten up, and he’s standing up against this false image of masculinity.

Diaz: Cause I wanna live, motherfucker. Do you understand that? I don’t want some Timberwolf shittin’ me out on this mountain.
Ottway: You’re scared.
Diaz: What?
Ottway: You don’t need all that nonsense, all that chest puff bullshit. What’s wrong with being scared?
Diaz: I’m not scared.
Ottway: You’re not?
Diaz: No.
Ottway: I’m terrified.
Diaz: I can tell.
Ottway: And not an ounce of shame in saying it. I’m scared shitless.
Diaz: That’s because you’re a punk. I don’t walk through this world with fear in my heart.
Ottway: You pick that up in the pen? Somebody scribble that in the day room wall?
Diaz: You better take it easy, motherfucker.
Ottway: Talking tough means jackshit now. You’re not scared? You’re a fool. Worse, you’re a fucking liar.

It’s a beautiful confrontation and the fact that it all mirrors the previous scene adds to the metaphorical depth of “The Grey”. We’re all just animals in this world; human ego has us believing otherwise. There are so many ways to look at the film, because it’s rich with symbols and philosophical undertones.

One of the more interesting takes on the film is that John Ottoway is a lone survivor and all other characters are just facets of his personality. Think about it, the macho tough guy, the family man, the non-believer, and the believer. This theory is supported by the fact that after the crash we see him all alone in the midst of everlasting snow. At the film’s finale, he’s alone once again.

I referred to Ottway as both a believer and a nonbeliever. The truth is, he’s both. I don’t know why people like to label one another based on religion. Faith isn’t as simple as black and white. There’s grey in between and many people place themselves there. When asked whether he’s an atheist he replies, “Nope…I’m a realist. I really wish I could believe in that stuff. This is real, the cold.” He lets out a breath. “That’s real, the air in my lungs, those bastards right there in the dark stalking us. This is the world that I’m worried about not the next.”

“The Grey” explores man’s most frightening questions, the reason we’re on this planet, if there’s an afterlife or if “dead is dead”. What makes this film so scary to me aren’t the wolves, but the fact that it encapsulates so much of what we fear as human beings, our fear of heights, flights, drowning or dying alone.

The number of survivor starts declining and surprisingly most characters die from the very things I mentioned. The most memorable death to me has to be that of Diaz. The one character we thought would never give up finally gives in accepting the fact that we all die one day.

“What I got waiting for me back there? I’m gonna sit on a drill all day. Get drunk all night. That’s my life. Turn around and look at that. I feel like that’s all for me. How do I beat that. When will it ever be better? I can’t explain it.”

At his final moments, he’s alone admiring the scenery. We only hear the faint sound of footsteps getting louder as the wolves come closer. Death is approaching. Diaz’ last words are “I’m not afraid”, and unlike the first time he says those words we actually believe him.

 

 

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Eventually Ottway is left all alone. He looks up at the sky and calls for God. “Do something! Come on, prove it! Fuck faith, earn it! Show me something real. I need it now, not later, now! Show me and I’ll believe in you till the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!” Nothing happens. “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

I’m sure I’ll quote that last line for years to come, because it rings so true. All my life I was told to pray for things I wanted, to pass an exam, to get accepted into university, to stay healthy. “Just leave it to God.” has been said to me over and over again at times of great frustration. But I never believed the world worked that way. I had to study to pass the exam, improve my grades to get accepted into university and avoid various harmful food or drugs to stay healthy. I had to earn it. I believe God helps those who help themselves.

 

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Anyway, we reach the much talked about ending. The most heartbreaking moment to me is as Ottway looks into the wallets of all his now deceased friends. He looks at family pictures and learns what each character was fighting for, family. When he flips open Diaz’ wallet, all he sees is a driver’s license and it’s utterly heart wrenching. Ottway wraps his hands on the wallet forming praying hands. He finally places it with the other wallets, all assembled to form a cross.

We learn that Ottway’s wife has died at the final moments of the film. Natasha Richardson, talented actress and wife to Liam Neeson unfortunately passed away due to an untimely skiing accident two years prior to filming. I can’t help but wonder if some of Neeson’s real emotions translated into the film’s core powerhouse performance.

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Like faith movie interpretations aren’t as simple as black and white. I think “The Grey” could be interpreted both ways depending on how you look at it. One could argue that no miracle happened, he ends up surrounded by wolves, dies alone and that’s the end of it. But one could also argue that the appearance of the alpha wolf is exactly what he asked for, a sign from God. The wolves finally showing up might be seen as proof that there is a God who wants him reunited with his wife. After all, his suicide attempt was interrupted by a howl and maybe this is God’s gift to him, a way to die without having to actually kill himself.

So why was the suicidal man fighting for his life? To find the meaning to life? A reason to live? Maybe I asked the wrong question; maybe Ottway wasn’t fighting for his life but for his death, to earn it.

Film Review: “Maverick” ★★★★★ (5/5)

“Maverick” starts with the protagonist in the middle of nowhere. He helplessly sits on a horse; his neck is at the end of a noose tied to a tree branch. The men who put him in this vulnerable situation surround him. They drop a bag containing a snake and ride away. If the horse bolts, Bret Maverick dies. It is one of the most attention-grabbing opening scenes in film.

“It had just been a shitty week for me from the beginning”, he narrates as we embark on a lengthy flashback that leads to this critical point of our hero’s adventurous tale. Make no mistake, the intense opening does not encapsulate the film’s tone, for “Maverick” is the kind of old-fashioned western comedy we rarely see nowadays. The film is in the tradition of slapstick Hollywood classics set in the Old West. Despite falling under a dying subgenre, director Richard Donner of “Lethal Weapon” and writer William Goldman of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” managed to create one of the highest grossing westerns of all time.

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It also happens to be one of my personal favorites. Every time I watch it, I can’t help but smile. It puts me in an upbeat mood and just plain and simply brings the best out of me. The reason I’m writing about it a good 18 years after its initial release date, is because it has become undeservingly forgotten. “Maverick” deserves the same great mentions received by other similarly molded feel-good classics like “The Sting”.

Mel Gibson was born to play this role and no matter what you think of him as a person, one must give him credit for being one the most talented actors out there. “Maverick” features a great and underrated performance unlike anything Gibson has done before. This could easily have been a flat performance had it been given to another actor, but Gibson uses a wide range of perfectly timed facial expressions completely owning the role and the audience. I think the humor feels so natural and genuine, because it seems to come out of character and situation. Frankly, it is hard to believe that the actors broke character when Donner yelled “Cut!” in between takes.

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Jodie Foster and James Garner deliver equally entertaining performances as the flirty Annabelle Bransford and Zane Cooper, a marshal who always seems to have a trick up his sleeve. We follow all three in a serious of comedic episodes leading to the biggest poker tournament ever assembled. To enter the tournament each player is required to pitch in with $25,000. Everyone involved seems to be a little short of that, and so the threat of not stockpiling the entry fee on time always lingers.

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Donner created a minor classic full of unpredictable twists thanks to a hilariously dialogued screenplay that deserves mammoth praise. “Maverick” is also one of those films rich with smooth references to everything from the original “Maverick” TV show starring Garner as the leading man to other classics such as “Stagecoach” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. It also features a pleasantly surprising cameo of Danny Glover in a hysterical bank robbery where both “Lethal Weapon” stars almost recognize each other.

It is impossible for me to name a favorite scene, because “Maverick” effortlessly flows from one memorable chapter to the next. Take for example, the first poker scene in which Maverick promises to lose for a decent hour. It leads to a sidesplitting confrontation between Maverick and the intimidating villain Angel played by Alfred Molina. Molina’s priceless fearful reaction after witnessing Maverick in a brawl outside the bar always leaves me laughing in tears. Another great scene is the comedic recreation of the famous stagecoach stunt or the fake Indian sacrifice with Graham Greene.

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Even though the film features few unrealistic yet engaging poker scenes, at its core, it’s a brilliant poker film. No matter what misadventure he finds himself in, Bret Maverick always seems to be in a poker mindset. He uses the rules of poker to con his way out of every incident, which makes for a smart masterpiece of pure good old times at the movies.