Film Stuff

Day 21: 21 Grams (2003)

At the beginning of January, Empire Magazine re-published their 500 greatest-movies-of-all-time list and challenged the readership to watch them all in one year. That is categorically (going by my record here) not going to happen. But it’s worth mentioning that 21 Grams is the third film this month to fall under that grouping. The first two being The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Twelve Monkeys.

With a heavyweight cast of Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts, 21 Grams  is a ferociously vivid tale of grief, loss and redemption. The structure is as fragmented as the characters’ lives, weaving between past and present with a tempo that demands your unwavering attention. It was actually shot in chronological order, then deftly jumbled up to eke out a narrative that’s straightforward in content, but profoundly complex in feeling and impact.

Sean Penn is a college professor dying of heart disease, still copping a sneaky fag and listening, grudgingly, to his wife’s plans  for IVF and (the increasing likelihood of) a post-mortem pregnancy. Benicio Del Toro is a born-again Christian, an ex-con who spends his time volunteering for the church youth group, delivering his own version of fire and brimstone to cynical teens and his own, terrified, family. Naomi Watts is a privileged housewife with an architect husband and two adorable young daughters, whose life is about to take a sudden turn for the worse.

The event that splinters the lives of these three characters, at the same time as fusing their paths together, is never shown on screen. The closest we get is an extended shot of a guy blowing leaves on a peaceful Autumn day. The camera lingers, demonstrating how much tension can be generated with very little action. It’s masterful storytelling, with performances to match. There are no weak links in the central trio – each character is compelling, flawed and laid bare by their actions. Their disjointed relationship is well served by the structure, offering fleeting contact, taut flashbacks, and snatches of insight that builds up to a coherent and devastating whole.

The one slightly off-note is Charlotte Gainsbourg as Penn’s pregnancy-fixated wife. It’s not a fault of the performance, more of a characterisation that suffers from an “Emily-from-Friends” stereotype of a humourless English bitch. It’s a shame – it’s the only role that feels like it’s a function of the plot, rather than a depiction of a real, rounded person.

This is a film that tears away the hypocrisy and facade of people’s everyday existence, questioning the values by which we lead our lives, and skewering the assumptions that make us who we are. It stays with you, as flickers of memory and fragments of reality, ultimately life-affirming as the characters finally make a kind of peace with themselves. If that sounds a pretentious load of guff, then go and watch the film.

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Film Stuff

Day 12: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

I’m having to play a bit of catch-up today after falling behind in the schedule over the weekend. Ironically, this was due to attending a film blogging workshop on Sunday, offered by IdeasTap. For those who haven’t come across it before, it’s a funky little website offering a wide range of opportunities for people in the creative industries. It’s primarily aimed at students/graduates/youngsters, but you do get the occasional thing where they forget to put the cap on at 30. So I trotted along to the workshop on Sunday, which was great fun and a bit of an indulgence. As well as providing a useful insight into film journalism, I got to see FIVE FILMS back-to-back. But because they’re not out yet, I had to sign an embargo promising not to talk about them. Sorry.

I had to lie down in a darkened room for a while after that.

But anyway, back to business. Day 12 (which, confusingly, I watched on Day 9), was Twelve Monkeys. This was the second Bruce Willis-starring sci-fi movie of the 1990s which I hadn’t seen before (along with The Fifth Element), and I always used to get the two mixed up because a) they’ve both got numbers in the title and b) I’m a muppet.

This was the more serious and cerebral of the two, although the fact that it’s directed by Terry Gilliam should have given a clue that a degree of wackiness would be involved. Sure enough, the story is by turns profound and zany, with the prospect of world devastation juxtaposed with dream sequences, a babbling Brad Pitt, and a bunch of scientists singing ‘Blueberry Hill’.

Bruce Willis is a convict from the year 2035 who is sent back to the 1990s to gather information on the group (the “Twelve Monkeys”) who engineered the spread of a virus that wiped out most of the world’s population in 1996. Accidentally stopping off in 1990 (where he’s shoved into a mental institution) and sometime during the First World War (where he’s shot by a French bullet), he manages to hook up with Katherine Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist who is sympathetic to his plight. Constantly dragged back and forth between different time periods, and dogged by a recurring dream, he starts to lose conviction in his mission and his sanity.

I loved the imagery in this film: the lion prowling around the ramparts of a desolated department store; echoes of the future constantly appearing in the past; the chilling moment when the psychiatrist recognises the man in the photograph from the First World War. It’s also an interesting insight into the paradoxical stereotypes of time-travel – can the actions of a man sent back in time actually affect the course of events, or is everything pre-ordained? Willis’ character is not sent to change the events, but just to gather information. The fine-tuned ending leaves this question open-ended – will action be taken to prevent the international spread of the disease in 1996, or will they stick to the original plan and take the virus (in its pure form) back to 2035 to find a cure?

On a practical note, the film viewing suffered from my recent defection to LoveFilm, which meant that instead of smooth online buffering, I got a very jumpy DVD which seemed to skip a couple of key scenes. This was frustrating and not conducive to an undiminished viewing experience.

But I liked it and I was even able to tolerate Brad Pitt for his few brief scenes. I’m glad I’ve seen the film, but it’s probably not one I’d rush out to buy (unless HMV has it on special offer). It’s an inventive, imaginative and well-told story that nonetheless didn’t hit me at an emotional level. But it does say a lot for the story’s internal logic and coherency that the most unbelievable thing about this time-travelling, apocalyptic film is watching a man go through airport customs with several cannisters of unidentifiable liquid in his hand luggage.

Suddenly, 1996 feels a very, very long time ago.

Film Stuff

Day 3: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Three Burials is another film that’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years. Not my purchase, but one which I always intended to see if I was ever in the right mood. Because there’s nothing like the prospect of sitting down with a glass of wine of an evening and watching two men lug a rapidly decomposing corpse across the Mexican border.

Flippancy aside, this is a very involving and moving film which raises important questions about loyalty, redemption, and social alienation. Set in present-day, small-town Texas, the film charts the murder and, well, three burials, of Mexican immigrant Melquiades, who is working illegally on a ranch run by Pete (Tommy Lee Jones). Initially found in a shallow grave, he is quickly re-buried with few questions asked. Tommy Lee Jones goes digging (literally) and unearths the truth about his death. Kidnapping the redneck perpetrator (Barry Pepper), he saddles up with the body and begins an odyssey to return his friend to his Mexican homeland.

While not as overt as O Brother Where Art Thou‘s allegorical journey, Three Burials nonetheless has elements of a mythical epic. Whether it’s the old, blind frontiersman they meet along the way, or the Mexican hunters who graciously share their meat and whiskey, each encounter reveals another layer of humanity. That it’s set against the backdrop of the very current  reality of working-class Texas, somehow gives the story more clarity.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a character at odds with his life, yet confident in the task at hand. He is a modern-day Ethan Edwards, a man out of place in the world he has lived in all his life, forever on the periphery of normality. This is why he has such a connection with the itinerent Melquiades – both exist on the fringes of society. Like Edwards, he pursues his goal to the exclusion of all other considerations, and when it’s completed, he rides off to an uncertain future. But unlike Edwards, Pete doesn’t really change throughout the course of the film. Essentially, it’s not his story. Instead, he serves to transform Barry Pepper’s loathsome Border Patrolman into a character capable of empathy and remorse.

It’s this relationship that kicks film into life. The two men are bound together in a surreal journey of redemption, salvation and dogged resolve, accompanied by a corpse stuffed full of anti-freeze to help counter the smell. It’s a personal journey as much as a geographical one – amidst the harshness of an unfamiliar land, they have to come to terms with their own demons. According to IMDB, Jones asked the cast to read The Stranger by Albert Camus as a study in alienation, a theme that suffuses the film. People are disconnected from their lives in a way that is hard to amend. The bored housewife, new to the area, has no social network to support her everyday life; the middle-aged sheriff is metaphorically and literally impotent when it comes to making effective decisions; the illegal immigrant dreams of his family that never existed.

Bizarrely, the film reminded me a little of Lost in Translation in its depiction of alienation. But it went further than that: instead of characters trying to understand a foreign country, here they are totally confounded by the land of their birth. It’s as if the societal structures set up to help them are now betraying their hopes of a better life. Patrolman Norton and his wife are high school sweethearts – WASPish products of a system that feted them for their popularity and ambition. Now, 15 years down the line, he picks his feet in front of the TV before bending her over the kitchen sink. This is the result of their American dream.

As a study of national identity, social alienation and personal redemption, Three Burials is a sublime piece of film. As a choice for a romantic evening in, it’s probably best to leave it on the shelf for another time.