Sunday, September 29, 2013

Film #104: Finding Nemo (2003)

Initial Release Country: United States

Directors: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

Times Previously Seen: once (about ten years ago)

Quick-Fire Summary (No spoilers)

A father clown fish goes a helluva long way to find his lost son. A dippy blue tang and various other sea creatures help him out.

Extended Summary (Spoilers Included, if that even matters)

In the middle of the ocean, a clown fish named Marlin (voiced by James Brooks) just settles into his new anemone home with his wife and their innumerable eggs, which are waiting to hatch. Unfortunately, the home is attacked by a barracuda, killing Marlin’s wife and eating all of the eggs but one. From that lone egg emerges Marlin’s only living family member – Nemo.

Some time later, a young Nemo (Alexander Gould) prepares for his first day of school. Marlin is the epitome of an overprotective parent, but Nemo is itching for adventure. Once with his schoolmates, a variety of other youngsters representing all manner of ocean species, Nemo is goaded into venturing away from the pack, towards a distant boat. When out a bit too far, Nemo is captured by a human scuba diver, who then takes the young clown fish ashore in Sydney, Australia. There, Nemo is sold to a dentist and placed in an aquarium with a small collection of other fish, and he is forced to wait and be taken by the dentist’s klutzy niece.

Nemo (the little orange guy) with a few of his fellow fledgling ocean-dwellers.

Out in the ocean, Marlin overcomes his fear of the open ocean and goes in search of his son. In the beginning, he meets a kind but highly forgetful blue tang named Dory (Ellen Degeneris), who Marlin unwillingly allows to tag along and assist him. Over a very lengthy odyssey, the two little fish make their way past various dangers, including sharks, jellyfish, and other hazards, on their way towards the distant Sydney.

Back in the dentist’s office, Nemo befriends his fellow captives in the aquarium, who are led by Gill (Willem Dafoe), a fish with serious determination to escape back to open water. After a few failed and nearly fatal attempts by Nemo and his comrades to get out of the tank, they are eventually successful in getting Nemo into one of the dentist’s drainpipes, which Nemo follows out to the sea.

Out in the waters off the coast, Marlin and Dory get some final bits of assistance from a friendly pelican, Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), finally manage to get close enough to the dentist’s office to eventually find Nemo. The father and son are reunited, and they both have new-found respect for each other’s tenacity in the face of so many dangers. Marlin learns to let his son have adventures, and Nemo learns to respect his father’s hidden but proven courage.

Marlin and Dory. Dory's flightiness gets on Marlin's last nerve, but the nervous little clown fish eventually learns to love the well-intentioned, blue dope.

My Take on the Film

As with the best Pixar films (and most of them are excellent), Nemo gets everything right, and it’s still really fun to watch. That is, of course, as long as you’ve kept a little bit of your inner child alive.

Finding Nemo was the one that really gave Pixar its first sure-fire classic film. Sure, Toy Story 1 and 2 and Monsters, Inc. pre-dated Nemo, but Nemo put together the excellent storytelling and humor of those earlier efforts with the stunning visual majesty of the oceans, as rendered through computer graphics.

Finding Nemo, in the spirit of the original Walt Disney pictures like Snow White, Pinocchio and others, was not meant to be a “kids film.” Rather, it was clearly meant to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This isn’t exactly an easy feat, as many parents will probably tell you. Often, such “family films” will be geared more for the younger kids than their older siblings or parents. As such, anyone over the age of ten will have to sit patiently through hokey gags, shallow action, clich├ęd morals that bash you over the head, or some combination of the three. Nemo avoids all of these pitfalls.

Nemo in the aquarium "prison." The other "inmates" all provide some of the best humor in the film, not least of whom is Gill (far left), voiced by Willem Dafoe.

The story does have a clear message which adults may or may not find mind-blowing. The warning against being overprotective isn’t exactly subtle, but at least it’s a message that remains universally relevant.

In terms of characters, I feel that I have a rather adult perspective on this movie. In truth, I don’t really find either of the two main characters – Marlon and Nemo – particularly novel or compelling. And though their dialogue can be funny at times, they are not what makes the film entertaining to me. In terms of characters, it’s all of the secondary and tertiary ones that steal the show, scene after scene. While I’m far from an Ellen Degeneris fan, her voicing of the memory-challenged Dory is actually pretty damn funny to me. Even funnier are critters like Gill, Nigel, the sharks, and plenty of others. Even the little voices given to the seagulls (“MINE!!MINE!!MINE!!MINE!!”) or the crabs (“Heeeey...heeeey...heeeey...”) are hilarious, if you’re into goofy humor like I am. The writers at Pixar and the voice actors must have had an absolute blast coming up with and executing their voice-overs of marine life.

The other grand appeal of Nemo is the visuals. As vibrant and smooth as their previous films had been, Nemo brought it to a whole new level. Their computer programmers managed to capture the color and fluidity of life under the ocean so beautifully that it was a pleasure to watch this film in high definition. On top of this, the writers and animators pull off a great amount of visual gags, many in the form of facial expressions on the fishes and other sea creatures. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Pixar’s brilliant short films, none of which ever have any dialogue.

The friendly seagull, Nigel (voiced by Geoffrey Rush), smacking into the dentist's office window. One of dozens of great visual gags that anyone with goofy sensibilities can appreciate.

While Finding Nemo is not my favorite Pixar film (for me, it’s The Incredibles), it’s not hard to see why it made the TIME 100 Great Films list. It set the absolute standard for computer-animated films that all others, even Pixar’s, have tried to match in the succeeding decade. It truly is a film that anyone, at any age, can watch and enjoy.

That’s a wrap. 104 shows down. One to go. (My god)

Coming Soon: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003):

And this grand journey of mine comes to an end, along with the grand journey of Frodo Baggins’s trek towards Mount Doom. Come on back to see how it all wraps up for me.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Film #103: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Director: Peter Jackson

Original Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: six or seven

*Note: The Lord of the Rings (LotR) trilogy was considered a single film by the list compilers at TIME, but I am reviewing each film separately. Here was my review for the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Legolas Quick-Draw-and-Fire Summary:

The eight remaining fellows of the fellowship of the ring are scattered about the lands. Many a fight ensues, while Sam and Frodo make more puppy-dog eyes at each other.

Extended Summary (with spoilers. Lots of them.)

*If you’d really like to dork out, you can check out this even-more detailed summary at imdb.

Sam and Frodo, having left behind the rest of the fellowship, continue to make their way towards Mordor. As they make the arduous trek across the craggy, sheer cliffs, they are attacked by Gollum, the previous owner of the Ring of Power. Gollum is monomaniacally obsessed with repossessing the ring. Sam and Frodo manage to capture and subdue Gollum, forcing the wretched creature to guide them safely to Mordor.

Far away, on the open plains of Rohan, Merry and Pippin are being carted along by the band of Uruk-hai that captured them. This band of vicious creatures are eventually joined by an equally repulsive force of orcs. The entire group is being hunted and hounded by Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, who are relentlessly chasing after their hobbit companions. However, before the trio can catch up to the Uruk-hai, the band of monsters are set upon by the Roherrim – a force of horse lords led by their Prince Eomir, who has been banished from his own lands by a possessed King Theodrin. Despite this, the Roherrim kill all of the Uruk-hai and orcs. Merry and Pippin manage to escape the carnage, fleeing into the nearby Fangorn Forest.

Legolas, Gimli (obscured by horse head), and Aragorn are met by a wary Eomir and his Rohirrim.

In the Forest, Merry and Pippin are saved by a massive, animated tree – a creature known as an “Ent.” This ent, which gives his name as Treebeard, brings the hobbits to a man he refers to as “the White Wizard.” Though the hobbits at first assume that Treebeard is referring to the now-evil Saruman, it is actually a reincarnated Gandalf. We come to find out that Gandalf, after defeating the Balrog beneath the Mines of Moria, was resurrected and brought back to Middle Earth in order to assume the role vacated by the twisted Saruman – that of “The White Wizard.” Eventually, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli find all three of their old friends in Fangorn, and the six are happily reunited. The reunion, however, is short, as Merry and Pippin are taken with Treebeard to a muster of other Ents, while the other four make their way to Edoras, the capital of Rohan.

Meanwhile, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum have traversed the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor’s Black Gate, though not without some serious risk. As the trio arrive at the gate, it becomes clear that entering Mordor this way is virtual suicide. Gollum convinces them that there is another way in, though it will take some time to reach it. Though Sam is highly skeptical of the skulking Gollum, Frodo puts his trust in the shifty guide, and the three begin their retreat from the Black Gate.

Back in Edoras, Gandalf and company arrive to find King Theodin in a vicious mental trap laid by his own “advisor,” Wormtongue, and maintained by the sorcerer Saruman. The newly empowered Gandalf exorcises Theodin, restoring his mind and youth; then, the wizard leaves in order to find Prince Eomir and the Roherrim. Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn stay behind to assist Theodin, as his lands are being overrun by Saruman’s ever-growing hordes of bloodthirsty creatures and feral human tribes. Theodin decides to gather all of the people in his city and bring them all to Helm’s Deep, a massive fortress built into a mountain. From there, he hopes to repel and crush any oncoming army. En route to Helm’s Deep, the caravan is set upon by a group of vicious, lupine wargs. The humans fend them off, but they seemingly lose Aragorn in the defense, the ranger having been sent over a cliff while fighting one of the warg riders.

The vicious wargs and their riders. Our heroes have to fend off a whole mess of these nasty critters, en route to the safety of Helm's Deep.

Far off, within the borders of Gondor, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum continue to make their way towards Gollum’s alternate path into Mordor. However, they are taken by a band of humans led by Faromir, a young Prince of the region. Sam and Frodo are taken captive as assumed spies, but the cunning Gollum eludes capture.

Back in Helm’s Deep, King Theodin readies the small group of humans remaining for their grand defense. Though the Deep is an amazing defensive structure, their number of actual warriors is very few. Their hopes are bolstered, however, when first Aragorn turns up very much alive, and then even more when a force of elven archers arrives.

In Gondor, Faromir begins to interrogate Sam and Frodo about their purpose in his lands. He also manages to capture Gollum. Faromir eventually learns from Gollum that Frodo carries the Ring of Power, and Sam and Frodo learn that Faromir is the younger brother of Boromir, their fallen comrade from the fellowship of the ring.  Despite the hobbits’ warning to Faromir not to try and take or use the ring, the young prince decides to take them all to his father at Minas Tirith, the capitol of Gondor.

At Helm’s Deep, night has grown completely dark, and Saruman’s massive army has arrived at the gates. The battle ensues. After hours of bloody fighting, the humans and elves have exacted a mighty toll on the numbers of the attacking hordes. Still, the sheer numbers of the monsters is near to overwhelming them all. Just when Theodrin’s forces are down to their final few, the dawn breaks, and reinforcements arrive. In the east, Gandalf, Eomir, and the Roherriam charge into the flank of Saruman’s remaining army, routing them all and saving the remaining human forces nestled within Helm’s Deep.

It's all-out siege warfare when Saruman's army attacks Helm's Deep.

All the while, Merry and Pippin have been waiting for the excruciatingly deliberate Ents to decide whether to involve themselves in the war. Though the tree creatures decide that they will not fight, they change their minds after Treebeard sees how Saruman has razed huge swaths of forest surrounding his tower. An army of ents storms and overtakes the tower, wiping out the monstrous forces within and trapping Saruman in his own lair.

Within Gondor, Faromir and his captives arrive in Osgiliath, a blasted city close to Minas Tirith. Their entire party is assaulted by forces from nearby Mordor, including a Ring Wraith riding a vicious black dragon. Frodo barely escapes the Wraith, and Faromir finally decides to allow Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to continue their way into Mordor. The Gondorian prince does, however, warn then that the path that Gollum is taking them to is fraught with horrible dangers.

The road, it seems, is only going to get harder…

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

While my recent re-watching of Fellowship of the Ring found me a little more restless than I had ever been when watching it before, I did not find the same problem with The Two Towers. Though I might not be quite as enchanted by it as I was ten, five, or even three years ago, I still really enjoy it.

Compared to Fellowship, there’s simply more meat to it. Yes, there are some of the lighter, more melodramatic moments, especially in the extended edition (which is the one that I watched this time). The teased romance between Aragorn and Eowhin, the antics of Merry and Pippin, and the wistful recollections and musings of Aragorn and Arwen, are all little moments that become a bit stale once you’ve seen them as many times as I have. They’re not bad, but they provoke some watch-gazing for me.

The real draw of The Two Towers is the action. While Fellowship certainly has a few good action scenes and small-scale battles, the second chapter steps it all up in a serious way. The smaller skirmishes with the wargs, orcs, and Uruk-hai are cool enough. But they all pale in comparison to the battle of Helm’s Deep. At this point in the story, Peter Jackson began to throw it all out there. In scenes that would do Braveheart proud, the fighting intensity and action are simply a blast to watch. The entire battle takes up over 30 minutes of the film, but it has never, any of the times that I’ve watched it, felt overly long to me. There are simply so many eye-catching things happening in nearly every shot that the entire Helm’s Deep sequence demands multiple viewings. Of course, if you simply can’t stand battle scenes, then you’re out of luck. For the rest of us, it’s unadulterated popcorn entertainment.

The battle of Helm's Deep is so rousing and entertaining, that I'm usually ready to pick up a sword, put on a snarl, and charge into the fray, right behind ol' Aragorn here.

Nearly all of the same strengths of the first film carry over into this second. The acting and casting remain incredibly strong, and there are some nice additions. The characters Arwin and Faromir have some intriguing depth and back stories. The Ents seem to be a bit divisive – some viewers really love them, while others find them boring as, well, watching a tree grow. I’ve always thought they were fine, and I especially love their attack on Saruman’s tower.

My overall sense of The Two Towers is that of expansion. While Fellowship introduced us to the main characters and kept things relatively tight in terms of the players, the second story starts to give us much larger groups, new lands and peoples, and a much greater sense of the entire land that the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to dominate. To me, Peter Jackson pulled off a rather amazing feat in that, though many readers of the source novel will say that The Two Towers is the least interesting of the three parts, the film version is no such weak link. It builds perfectly into the third and final chapter when, as Gandalf puts it at the end of this chapter, “The Battle for Middle Earth begins.”

That’s a wrap. 103 shows down; 2 to go.

Coming Soon: Finding Nemo (2003):

“Whaddaya mean I’m funny?! Funny how?! Like a clownfish??!!”

(Seriously. Just say that to yourself in Joe Pesci’s voice. It’s hilarious.)

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Film #102: City of God (2002)

Original Portuguese Language Title: Cidade de Deus

Directors: Katia Lund; Fernando Meirelles

Original Release Country: Brazil

Times Previously Seen: once (about eight years ago)

Rapid-Fire Summary

A couple of kids grow up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. One wants to take photos; the other wants to be the ultimate gangster. Much sweating and pot-smoking throughout.

Extended Summary

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the 1960s. In government-built project housing outside of Rio de Janeiro, the impoverished of the region struggle to make a living. Among them are many restless youths, some of whom have resorted to crime. A particularly noted group, called the “Tender Trio,” are reasonably successful crooks, robbing gas trucks or any other valuables that they can steal from the wealthier class. A boy known as “Rocket”, the younger brother of the Trio member “Goose,” sees his brother and his companions rise to some modest power and local fame, though he admits that he hasn’t the courage to be a hoodlum, for fear of being shot.

Despite his very young age, "Li'l Dice" proves his proclivity for homicidal sadism frighteningly early.

One day, another very young, tough, and aggressive neighborhood boy known as “L’il Dice” teams up with the Trio. He feeds them the idea of robbing a motel filled with prostitutes and their clients. The Trio enact Dice’s plan, but force him to remain on lookout. When the police are called, the Trio flee, unable to find Dice. Unknown to them, Dice had sneaked into the motel before the cops arrived on the scene, where he killed several people in a homicidal mania. L’il Dice, despite being only around 10 years old, is already a bona fide psychopath.

The mass murders at the motel result in some changes. The Tender Trio disband, with one member becoming a clergyman, one being lethally shot by Li’l Dice, and Rocket’s brother Goose being killed by police as he attempted to flee the neighborhood with his girlfriend.

Several years pass. Rocket and his friends are now teenagers, though they are still living in the slums, which have grown more massive, convoluted, and packed with desperate people. Drugs are a large part of life for many people, either as users or dealers. Rocket is merely a user of marijuana, though he knows many of the main dealers in the area. Mostly, Rocket still has the more modest aspirations of becoming a photographer and finding a girlfriend.

In the middle of the bustling and chaotic slum, Li’l Dice sees opportunity. With his long-time right-hand man and best friend, Benny, by his side, Li’l Dice sees a local shaman for his blessing. Li’l Dice adopts the new name of “Li’l Ze” and mounts his takeover of all of the drug trade in the neighborhood. Within a single 24 hour period, Ze kills four of the five drug bosses in the area, taking over all operations. The only one left is the dealer known as “Carrot,” who is left to control a small part of the neighborhood.

With deadly alacrity, Li'l Ze amasses a crew of other desperate young thugs and takes over the slum's drug operations. His rise and following speak to the brutal poverty of the neighborhood.

For a time, the neighborhood is relatively peaceful. Drug use is prevalent, but crime is extremely low, being totally controlled and repressed by Ze and his crew. Things seem to be running like clockwork for the homicidal Ze and the oddly affable Benny. Benny, though, is not really a gangster at heart, as much as he has profited from the trade. He and his girlfriend decide to leave the drug business behind. At Benny’s farewell party, Ze starts an argument with his friend, angrily trying to convince him to stay with him. On the periphery, an assassin sent by Carrot takes a shot at Ze, but hits and kills Benny instead. All of a sudden, the relative peace of the neighborhood is on very shaky ground.

A short time after, Ze and his crew assault a local citizen, “Knockout Ned,” and rape his girlfriend in front of him. Even more, Ze and his crew go back to Ned’s house to confront him. There, they end up killing a few more of Ned’s family members. Ned, a former soldier and generally likable guy, joins up with Carrot and mounts an all-out war on Ze.

As all of these events unfold, Rocket is able to see it happening, as he has remained friends with Benny and acquaintances with many of the other central figures. As the feud between Ze and Ned erupts into an all-out war zone, Rocket simply tries to stay out of the way, and he continues to pursue a job as a photographer. He even manages to get a job delivering newspapers, trying to learn what he can from from the photo department.

One fateful day, Ze and his crew are lamenting the fact that Knockout Ned seems to get more publicity than them. They pull Rocket off the streets and have him take several photos of them, all brandishing their weapons. Through a mishap, the photos get developed and used by the main newspaper in the area. Rocket is terrified, thinking that Ze and his crew will kill him because of the public exposure that the photo will bring on. However, Rocket doesn’t realize that this is just what Ze and his boys wanted.

Knockout Ned, the once-peace-loving citizen of the slum who is all but forced into mounting an all-out war against the psychotic Li'l Ze. Among all of the tragedies in the tale, Ned's might just be the saddest.

Shortly after the newspaper story, another massive firefight breaks out in broad daylight in the middle of the slums, with Rocket right in the middle of the carnage, taking photos of everything. Knockout Ned is killed. Li’l Ze is captured, but bribes the police to let him go. Immediately after being freed, however, Ze is lethally and brutally gunned down by a pack of pre-pubescent boys whom he had terrorized a year prior. Witnessing it all and cataloging it with his camera is Rocket.

From his photo reporting of the drug war in City of God, Rocket gains an internship with the paper. He hopes that this will be his way out of the slums, which show signs of further impending terror, despite the death of Ze and the other powerful gangsters who have now been put down. The pack of kids who killed Li’l Ze are already plotting the deaths of other perceived enemies in the neighborhood, heralding further chaos and bloody violence.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

City of God is one of the best, most unique gangster movies I’ve ever seen. And I really like a good gangster movie.

What we have with this movie is a kind of Goodfellas tale set in the sweaty, scuzzy slums of Rio de Janeiro. Seeing the rise and fall of Li’l Ze through the eyes of the harmless Rocket is equal parts compelling and horrifying. There’s often something genuinely interesting about watching a character’s ascent and descent, no matter whether they are eminently lovable or thoroughly repellent (If you read my summary above, you know which category Li’l Ze falls into).

Our narrator and moral center in the story, Rocket. The gentle young man's presence adds one of the many unique elements to this tale of gang violence.

However, it’s not just the rise-and-fall formula that makes this film great. There is such a novel blend of elements that it really defies any direct comparisons. Yes, it’s like Goodfellas, but it’s very different from it, as well. Yes, it’s like Once Upon a Time in America, but it’s very different from it, as well. You can go on and on like this, with every great gangster film and how City of God bears some similarities, but incomplete ones.

The most obvious unique element is the narration and perspective of Rocket. Usually, if a gangster tale has a narrator, it is someone who is “inside” the action – either a crook such as Henry Hill in Goodfellas or a police officer such as Donnie Broscoe in that eponymous film. Rocket, though, provides us with a rather average, admittedly unheroic onlooker who seems to report all, without every really judging. The fact that he’s eminently likable and gentle makes him the perfect teller of this otherwise brutally violent story.

The characters and acting are absolutely amazing. From the affable Rocket and Bennie, to the psychotic Li’l Dice/Ze, to the tormented Knockout Ned, every character commands your interest. They’re either funny, friendly, quirky, or just plain frightening. Even when the friendships or relationships might seem a bit strange, such as that between Li’l Ze and Bennie, the actors sell them so well that you completely buy into them. The range required by some of the parts was well-met by all of the Brazilian actors who played them, all of whom I know only from this film.

The young Li'l Dice (later 'Ze') and his right-hand man, Benny. Every actor, including the young kids, brings such life to his or her role that it's impossible not to feel the authenticity behind the story.

Another one of the rather special elements of the movie is the setting. Sure, there have been gangster movies set in run-down areas of the world, such as the projects of 1930s and 1940s New York City in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. But those places were often thoroughly stark, grim, dominating places that overpowered all the denizens within. In City of God, the titular slum neighborhood has a very distinct look and feel, compared to other gangster films, especially in the beginning. Yes, the homes are project housing, and yes, they eventually become a dank maze of interconnected shantytowns. And yet, there are several scenes in which Rocket and some of his friends go a little ways outside of the slum and go to the beach. And the beach is beautiful enough to make you find religion. This grand contrast between the natural beauty so close at hand just makes the oppressive poverty and violence of the City that much more palpable.

If I had to gripe about the film, only two minor things come to mind. One is that the filming style employed is very often the hand-held “guerrilla” style of cinematography, mixed with some very fast editing cuts. The effect can be rather dizzying at times; something that I’m not a big fan of. However, this really didn’t detract from my enjoying the movie much at all.

The only other “gripe” is almost not a gripe at all so much as an unfortunate fact – I don’t speak Portuguese. As such, I’m sure that I often missed some of the humor conveyed through certain characters’ choices of words or tones. Usually, the greatest gangster films feature outstanding dialogue. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, and even the classic White Heat all have some of the most memorable give-and-take exchanges in film history. When a film isn’t in a language I understand, I always feel like I miss out on a little something.

Subtitles are fine and good, and the tranlations for City of God seem to be excellent, conveying plenty of the humor and intensity. Still, there's never any beating being able to understand the original language.

Just one caveat to those thinking about seeing this movie for the first time – it is quite violent, though not in any gratuitous way. I feel about the violence in this movie the way that I do about any historically-based crime film – it’s actually necessary to show it so that we viewers can see the true, horrifying results of the real-life actions in the film. Still, if you don’t have the stomach for it, you may just want to pass on this one. If, however, such things don’t turn you off of these kinds of films, do yourself and favor and watch it soon.

Upon Further Review (Some additional thoughts after a bit of research)

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a wealth of information about the facts upon which City of God is based. There are a few interesting tidbits, though.

One is that the film is based on the 1997 novel of the same name. The author, Paulo Lins, used his own experiences in the real-life City of God favela and the real gangsters of the time and place to craft the tale. The book is a novel; as such, it takes creative license with some of the facts. Still, many of the people and events are real. This is evidenced by some of the actual news footage that is shown during the closing credits of the film.

Matheus Nacthergaele, portrayer of "Carrot," and the only actor in the film with any known experience. He's great, but the performances by all of the locals are amazing.

It’s interesting to note that aside from the actor who played Carrot, all of the players were complete amateurs. Many of them, in fact, were denizens of either the real City of God or one of the other favelas around Rio. Considering this, it’s amazing that the performances were so organic and natural.

A final disturbing point related to the inspiration for The Runts – the group of pre-pubescent kids who kill Li’l Ze and end the movie by talking through a list of other people who they want to kill. Apparently, this final scene was based on a real group putting together a very real hit list while on the set of the movie. For safety purposes, the film crews decided to dedicate some funds to moving the actors out of City of God. This was to prevent them from being victimized by The Runts, and to give them a better opportunity at life.

That’s a wrap. 101 shows down; 4 to go.

Coming Soon: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Little dudes mixing it up with big dudes, who mix it up with some even bigger dudes. All in a dream-world of magic!! And oh yeah – talking trees. That’s pretty cool.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Film #101: Talk to Her (2002)

Original Spanish Title: Hable con ella

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Initial Release Country: Spain

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

A pair of men with loved ones in comas bond. Strange and illegal relationships ensue. A massive vagina gets involved.

Extended Summary (Spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a journalist in Spain, tracks down the noted female bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) in order to do a story on her. When he meets and explains that he hopes to do the story about her recent breakup with a fellow matador, Lydia initially is upset. However, she changes her opinion, does the story with Marco, and the two become lovers for a time.

Lydia, the unlucky-in-love lady bullfighter who becomes romantic with the sensitive journalist, Marco.

Several months later, Lydia is horrifically injured by a bull and is sent into a coma. While visiting her in the coma ward, Marco meets Benigno (Javier Camara), a nurse who works in the coma ward with one specific patient – Alicia. Marco eventually learns that Benigno’s relationship is far from a simple nurse-patient one. Four years prior, just before Alicia became comatose, Benigno had been living a solitary life with only his mother. He had noticed Alicia in the dancing school across the street from his and his mother’s home, and he one day approached and introduced himself to to her. Not knowing how else to proceed, he even made an appointment with Lydia’s father, who is a psychiatrist.

Before things could go any further, however, Alicia was the victim of a car accident. Benigno, still smitten with the beautiful young dancer, applies to be a nurse in the coma ward where she is admitted. Benigno’s skill and sincerity in caring for Alicia impresses her father enough to hire Benigno as one of two nurses who will attend his daughter at all times. As the four years pass, Benigno continues to dedicate all of his love to Alicia, not only caring for all of her physical needs but also constantly talking to her as if she were perfectly conscious.

When Benigno meets Marco in the coma ward, he offers him some friendly advice about caring for Lydia. However, Marco soon learns that Lydia’s former lover has returned and that they had been back together for about a month before Lydia’s accident. Understandably saddened, Marco leaves the hospital. He runs into Benigno on his way out, and he learns an unsettling secret. Benigno tells Marco that he is so in love with Alicia that he hopes to marry her. Marco, thoroughly shocked, tries to explain how inappropriate Benigno’s notion is, given that Alicia is essentially dead. Benigno, though, seems undeterred.

Benigno "introduces" Alicia (left) to Marco and Lydia. The two men are both doomed to love women who are unable to return their deep feelings.

Soon at the hospital, things take a dark turn. It is discovered that Alicia is pregnant. Based on the circumstances and the fact that a fellow nurse had overheard Benigno’s plans to marry Alicia, Benigno is put into prison on the assumption that he has raped her. While this is occurring, Marco has been in Jordan for several months, writing a travel guide. While Marcos is there, he reads in a newspaper that Lydia has died. When he calls the hospital and asks for Benigno, he learns of the sordid story.

When he returns and visits Benigno in prison, it becomes fairly clear to Marco that Benigno is guilty. Still, he remains friends with the sensitive and horribly misguided nurse. Marco seems to empathize on some level with Benigno’s desire to know whether Alicia’s child is born or not. Marco even accepts Benigno’s offer to stay in his old apartment. While staying there, in fact, he sees Alicia, recovered from her coma. He learns later that she had given birth to a stillborn child, but then came out of her coma. When Marco sees her, she is still on crutches, rehabbing her atrophied muscles.

Marco initially decides not to tell Benigno of Alicia’s stunning recovery and the death of the child. This changes rapidly when Marco receives a phone message from Benigno in which the hopeless man announces that he will escape. Marco rushes to the hospital, only to find that Benigno has indeed “escaped” – he has overdosed on pills and killed himself.

Not long after these tragic events, Marco runs across Alicia at a dance performance. The two exchange a few words and glances, and there seems to be some sort of spark between them.

My Take on the Film

Talk about getting dropped off a cliff.

Talk to Her had me fully engaged for over half its length, and it was easy for me to see why this is considered a great film and why Almodovar is considered a great director. Yet there is a point in this movie at which all viewers will take one of two completely divergent emotional paths. I took the path that led to confusion and alienation from the film.

The seemingly kind and altruistic Benigno - the character who will force you to ask yourself some very serious and disturbing questions.

So what is this crucial moment? We’ll get to that, but let me cover what I really liked about the film, especially during the first hour or so.

The most immediate is the cinematography. The sets and costumes are wonderfully colorful, as is the general setting of Spain, the bullfighting scenes being the ones that immediately come to mind. The shots are wonderfully framed and things are edited in ways that make the visuals smooth and inviting. There is a general warmth exuded from the pictures, even when the characters are suffering through terrible bouts of loneliness or anguish.

The actual narrative itself is also masterfully composed. Despite the depth of the several characters and just how much we are given about them, nothing ever feels either rushed or stagnant. Every time a mysterious element emerges, the story addresses it somewhere further into the plot. This is always a welcome element in films, especially ones like this. I’ve seen far too many films that raise serious questions about the characters or plot that are never addressed, as if the director were either too lazy, too unimaginative, or too pretentious to resolve potential conflicts. Not so with this film.

One of the many visually and emotionally warm moments in the movie. Marco, Lydia, and all of the other characters manage to stoke viewers' feelings for them.

There is also a lot of emotional food for thought in the story. The running theme is finding and losing a person who you love, what it does to a person, and how you can overcome the pain involved. Done mostly through dialectic recollections and a few very brief visual flashbacks, we can sense the pain felt by the different characters as they struggle over past lovers.

The acting is absolutely superior. Each and every person nails their roles perfectly, even the rather difficult roles of Marco and Benigno. The latter, especially, is a character who will surely test the emotions of all viewers, and it had to be played in just a particular way. Javier Camara pulled it off remarkably.

So, these all seem to be the stuff of a hands-down excellent movie, right? Not so fast. Allow me to explain just when the train went off the tracks for me.

About an hour or so into the film, we have a scene with Marco and Benigno. Shortly after Marco learns that Lydia had been seeing her former lover before her accident, Benigno tells him an odd tale of a silent film that he had watched the night before. The film was about a man who had taken a “slimming” potion concocted by his scientist girlfriend. The man shrinks down to roughly six inches high, with no remedy in sight. One evening, while his wife is in bed, he begins to caress her sexually. He then enters her through her vagina, where he stays for the rest of his life.

To answer your question - Yes. This still photo depicts exactly what you think it does.

Now, that scene alone is going to make you ask some questions. It might even lead you to turn off the movie, completely baffled and/or disgusted. Though I was rather uncomfortable at the scene, I stuck with the movie to see where it went.

And then we learn that Benigno has raped the girl in a coma.

Good night, everyone.

I continued to watch the entire film because we do not really get full confirmation of the rape until close to the end, and by that time I was emotionally checked out. And before anyone thinks that I simply didn’t “get it,” I beg to differ. I do understand that Benigno represents some form of victim of the ultimate unrequited love. He felt that he himself had “shrunken” into nothingness like the man in the silent film, and he felt that the only way to prove his own existence was to lose himself in Alicia. After spending four years losing himself emotionally in her, he takes the most extreme next step possible – he loses himself physically by planting his seed in her and then killing himself.

I get all that, and I suppose that it does make for some interesting intellectual discussion. I also assume that Almodovar is asking us to realize that this is a film, and to see these all as fictional characters through which we can use highly unnerving situations to raise poignant questions. And despite knowing all of this, I simply can’t subdue my repugnance at the notion, even fictional, of raping someone in a coma. Call me overly sensitive, but that’s my ultimate impression.

Even after learning that Benigno has, in fact, raped Alicia, Marco continues to remain friends with the former nurse while he's in prison. I understand, intellectually, why this is. However, this was all just too much for me, morally.

For anyone who is thinking of watching the movie and has read through this review, just try to have some idea of what you’re in for. It will seem like a fairly standard drama most of the way, but you will be seriously challenged at the mid-way point. I can see why it is considered a “great” film, as its technical merits are irreproachable and it is unlike any film that I’ve ever seen. But there’s no reason for me to ever watch it again.

That’s a wrap. 101 shows down; 4 to go.

Coming Soon: City of God (2002):

I watched this one about eight years ago and remember thinking it was excellent. It’s been long enough now that I don’t really remember much about it. It’s also appropriate, what with the protests going on in Brazil right now. I’m looking forward to it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.