You Were Never Really Here

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Had this film been directed by anybody but Lynne Ramsay, it would have starred Denzel Washington and climaxed in a bloody shootout with the bad guys. But Ramsay really shows no interest in appealing to the masses; her true concern resides in what traumas are concealed underneath their facades of civility.

Unsettling is her staple, and You Were Never Really Here has that in spades. Not out of horror, or violence. This is disturbing to watch because it makes no attempt to contextualize pain, nor does it offer an easy way out of it. It portrays a character so broken and haunted by demons that watching him can feel punishing at times. So does the movie. I cannot say I enjoyed it, but it’s effect is undeniable.

B+

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The Florida Project

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Shortly before feeding them, the Bible tells that Jesus had compassion for the weary and hungry multitude. Two thousand years later, the word has been almost eroded from our vocabulary; that’s maybe why Sean Baker’s camera seems to urgently remind us of it.

The Florida Project, one of the most moving and wonderful pictures of the last five years, brims with compassion. It is found on every shot of this Orlando set story, taking in the inhabitants of a stretch of highway that have been forgotten by locals and visitors alike, everybody so concerned with rushing to the self proclaimed most magical place on earth.
Most crucially, Sean Baker appears to understand the great irony of our species: the tragedy of humans is not that we are victims of this broken world, but that we are also complicit in it.

The film never romanticizes nor does it judge it’s characters, allowing them to exist fully and freely. It is this approach that makes the story, consisting more of episodes than a full fledged plot, a spiritual companion piece to another wistful film of Americana, Andrea Arnold’s lyrical American Honey.  The characters in that movie never felt like the inventions of  a screenwriter, and neither do these ones. Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) are breathing, living creatures that we happen to have stumbled upon. As such, there are moments which are truly unbearable to watch.

It is not only the abject poverty that defines Halley and Moonee that’s tough to watch, but their attempts to rise above it. Halley loves her daughter and will do whatever to see her smile, yet the way she tries to do it is toxic not only for Moonee, but for herself as well. Halley’s perpetual stare is of fury and resignation, which paired with the endless wonder that fills Moone’s eyes only serves to drive home the point that eventually the daughter will become the mother.

By the end of the film you’re keenly aware that, unless the film suddenly goes off the rails into the realm of fantasy, there exists only one logical way for the story to end. Indeed, I’d argue that this is a movie which cannot be spoiled, because reality has trained us to know certain basic realities of our world. And if it hasn’t, Sean Baker’s camera has been there to guide you with every shrug, scream, sigh and punch of his characters; with every weary look, eyes of love, and belly full of laughter.
And yet when it finally does arrive it’s effect is still devastating.

In truth, I had to avert my gaze from the screen. I could not bear to look up at the screen, yet even listening to the audio was agonizing. Was I hiding out of embarrassment or pain? To be honest I think I was praying.
When a few seconds later I lifted up my eyes, I was greeted to a final sequence so magnificent in its creativity, so majestic in its execution, so heart-wrenching in its implications, that I knew I was going to remember it until the day I died.

A+

Atonement

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I’ve been staring at my keyboard for the past twenty minutes, debating on a multitude of possible paragraphs that could open this entry. An option I considered was outright stating that Atonement is the best picture I’ve seen all year, while simultaneously declaring that I will never again watch it. Another option included breaking down one of the many sumptuous and majestic shots that adorn the film, each one as breathtaking as the last, a postcard perfect rendition to love and war. It’s rare when I’ve no clue as to where to start discussing a film, or the emotions brought about by one; but then again, films with the devastating cumulative power of Atonement are as equally rare.

Loyal reader(s?) of this blog will know (bless you) of my visceral response to romance films. One of the palpable symptoms of being in love with a ghost is to be attuned to its stories. Yet emotions rarely cloud judgement. Take for instance Blue Jay, another melancholic look at the love that could’ve been. I reacted strongly to that film, while at the same time being aware of its shortcomings. But there are no flaws to be found in Atonement.

The performances are masterful. Consider the scene, very early on, in which Robbie (James McAvoy) apologizes to Cecilia (Keira Knightley) for giving her an anatomically explicit letter. Cecilia’s words imply outrage, but her facial expressions convey something else; amusement, even a certain amount of flattery. Their exchange lasts about twenty seconds, yet it makes everything that occurs immediately after appear natural, logical.

The photography is also heavenly. Nearing the end of the odyssey, Robbie stumbles upon a giant screen showing two lovers kissing. The nameless film is in black and white, and Robbie is shrouded by shadows; when he looks up and sees the kiss, he immediately drops his whole head down. It is an agonizing moment in a picture replete with them; the way the camera frames Robbie, slightly off center with the giant kiss happening in the background, is one of the most memorable shots I have ever seen, in terms of both beauty and storytelling.

And of course love and regret, two words (emotions?) that appear to go hand in hand. This is an achingly tender picture. The brief moments that Robbie and Cecilia share burrowed into my mind, replaying over and over during the sad spectacles that tears and keeps them apart. “Come back”, she says to him, and it’s not only Robbie craving to do so during the entire film, but myself as well, aching to encounter peace and happiness again. Every time the camera cut back to either lover, distant from the other by a thousand miles of pain and loss, my heart broke.

But the film, being as smart as it is, also presents the catalyst of this tragedy, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), as somebody to feel tenderness for. The audience comes to understand her motivations, and while forgiveness may still be hard to come by, it is difficult not to be moved by her genuine regret. I will remember the last shot of her for a very long time.

Easily one of the most profoundly poignant pictures I have ever seen, Atonement crescendo’d its way into my very soul, and I’ll wager it will remain there for a while.

A+

 

Cafe Society

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“Nothing means anything when you’re sure you’re really in love”, says Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), the main protagonist of the keenly melancholy Cafe Society, when asked his opinion on a man walking out on his wife of a quarter century to marry somebody else.
Later on another character will exclaim that no force on Earth can explain love, which is why it is called “falling” in love, since there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it.

But even before such lines are uttered somebody mentions, during the first twenty minutes of this marvelous film, that unrequited love kills more people across the globe each year than tuberculosis, a claim Bobby does not object to, judging by all the pictures and the songs that romanticize and ennoble love that has been left adrift.
One of the many sad ironies is that by the end of the movie Bobby will have been marked by death by unrequited love. Death not of the body, like what his brother experienced, but a more profound and mournful type.

I am talking of course about the agony found in Bobby’s eyes since the day Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) destroyed his heart and quenched the flames that livened his spirit. I am talking about the absolute meaninglessness of anything when he feels he has nothing as Vonnie was his everything. I am talking about the way he roams through country clubs and parties and the birth of his child as if he just returned from a trip to paradise, and finds proceedings here back on Earth terribly dull.

“I pray and I pray and I pray, but there is no answer”, Bobby’s dad says near the end of the movie.
Vonnie was an answer to Bobby’s prayer. “She is a dream, an angel sent from above” says a character in describing Vonnie.

As a new year begins but Bobby’s disappointments remain the same, he looks at the bright lights up in the sky, dreamy eyes and beaten heart, convinced that the answer to his prayers has been no, and that his angel will never again appear to him.

A+

Black Death

black deathA professor of Theology was recounting the time when one of the students at the seminary he teaches at suffered the loss of a loved one. The student visited the professor at his office shortly afterwards with questions regarding God’s purpose in such mindless tragedy. According to the professor, the student left his office in high spirits. A year later however, the professor received an email from this same student, with more questions regarding a good and loving God in the midst of a cruel and unloving world. The professor replied to the best of his abilities. Two years later, while visiting the blog of this same student, he encountered a post discussing the loss the boy had suffered many years before. “I finally understand the purpose of all this”, the post went. “It means there is no God.”

The quest at the heart of Black Death is a spiritual one. The swords and shields the characters wield play second fiddle to their true weapons: faith and prayer. There is an extraordinary scene set at a dining hall, in which Ulric (Sean Bean) stands up, his companions soon rising along, and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Because it is implied that everybody else in the room is a devil worshiper, the scene has unbearable tension, with the camera cutting between Ulric praying and everybody else, looking as if their cover is about to be revealed and demons will spill forth from every corner of the room.

Black Death is a bleak a movie about faith in God as I can recall. At the start of the picture, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is shown kneeling at the cross, crying. The doubts the monk harbors are not about the existence of a higher power, but about the role he plays at the monastery, and whether or not he is the right man to serve the Lord. Osmund is in love you see, and not exactly with Jesus Christ. Osmund’s passions are of the flesh, as he is in a romantic relationship with Averill (Kimberley Nixon).

The movie progresses and Osmund suffers the sting of loss, but the filmmaker is wise enough to not show his increasing theological doubts to the audience firsthand. It is Langiva (Carice van Houten), the witch that Ulric and Osmund have been seeking for the entire time, who comments on Osmund’s new state of mind. Langiva, who holds sway over the entire village, understands the effect that turning a man of the cloth away from God would have on her people and on the Christian crusaders that have arrived to claim her life. It is exactly why the scenes in which she taunts him are so effective. Audiences know the toll the battle that is being waged in Osmund’s soul must be having on him.

“Why did you believe her?”, a crusader asks a heathen about the witch.
“Because she was beautiful”, he replies. “And real.”
Of his own faith, Osmund is not so sure about the real part anymore. At the end, he is kneeling at the cross again, but there are no tears on his cheek this time. Much like the kid at the seminary, he seems to agree that the reason for all the madness in the world is because there is simply no God.

B